Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line

I recently explored this new show at the British Library. A word of advice before entering this show – be prepared, it’s jammed packed with great maps. Make sure you have a good deal of time to devote to it. My husband and I spent at least 4 hours there. We had to stop half way to have lunch in the library’s restaurant.

I am fortunate that this show opened before I leave London at the end of the month. The show primarily focuses on modern maps and how they influenced people in the 20th century. This was the time when maps were becoming widely available to the public, outside of the classroom geography lesson. They were used to expose the differing points of view of the wider world, explain the movement of goods and people or create imaginary places. As expected there was a wide variety of maps shown, including some all time greats like Mercator’s Atlas of Europe from 1570-72, and early commercial versions of British Ordnance Survey maps, published when cars and touring became popular in the first half of the 20th century. There are five sections in the show, Mapping a New World. Mapping War, Mapping Peace?, Mapping Movement and Mapping the Market.

Unfortunately, it’s a “no photos allowed” exhibit, but I’ll do my best. Here are a few that stood out to me. It’s a bit random.

The first part of the exhibit juxtaposed maps of different times and places. It likened a 1573 portolan map to the 1972 Vignelli NYC Subway map – for their “simplicity”. The portolan map was beautiful. This one had bright saturated colors. These maps concentrated their information on the coasts, as they were used by those traveling on water. They are very interesting to study.

A portolan map focuses on the coast (detail, left, from the British Library collections). The Vignelli subway map, 1972 (right, the same as in the show).

In the section on war, there was a German 1940 map of the area of south London where I’m staying, marking bombing targets. Red markings were printed on the gas tanks just north of the Oval Cricket Grounds. The gas is long gone, but their empty cylindrical structures sit near the “big” Tesco grocery store that we bike to once a week. The Battersea power station, the one made famous on that Pink Floyd album cover, was also a target. It sits next to Battersea Park, where we watched fireworks the other night. This map is a bit disconcerting to look at because it seems just a bit too close to home, but then you see above it, a similar English map made of targets in Nuremberg, Germany. Clearly, people from that area would feel uneasy when looking at that map. Even though those gas tanks and the power station survive, there were innumerable bomb strikes in this area. That war is long over, and even to a foreigner like me, a map like this can stir strong emotions.

The Germans used existing maps of London and overprinted their targets in red. (from the British Library collections)

In the same war area of the exhibit, there were several examples of military cloth escape maps. After the war, when silk was still scarce, women used the silk maps to make garments. The exhibit showcased a dress made of several southeast Asian maps. Earlier this year, I had seen American cloth escape maps in Milwaukee.

Silk maps dress. British Library
Installing dress made of German silk escape maps. On loan from Worthing Museum. Photo by Clare Kendall.

A few maps called out to the designer in me and were fun to see. One map of a place called San Serriffe. The capital of this place is Bodoni and its coastal cities have names like Garamondo,  Villa Pica and Cap EM. Do you see where this is going? They didn’t have the actual printed map, what was shown was an old school mechanical, complete with individual letters on a curve and inked lifework. That brought back memories! This was a April Fools joke map published in the The Guardian in 1977. See more about the exhibit’s fantasy maps here.

The imaginary world of San Serriffe (detail)

I got to see actual “isotypes”, printed in a Gertrude Williams “Women and Work” book from 1945. Isotypes were developed by Otto Neurath and designed by Gerd Arntz. These are pictograms created for visualizing statistical social and economic information. I discuss isotypes, Gerd and Otto in my Visual Language classes at FIT/SUNY.

Of course what map show in London would be complete without a bit about the beloved tube map? Henry Beck’s original sketch is included. It’s about 14 x 12 inches or so – not very big. It’s drawn in pencil and you can see where he whited out some lines he wanted to reposition. There is no text or type on the sketch and there are only a few tube lines shown, as they had quite a few less tube and transit lines back then. Henry was an engineer — the story goes that he borrowed the visual language of electronic schematics to simplify the complicated system.

Harry Beck tube map sketch. (detail)

Another curiosity was a page of 1918 Latvian postage stamps printed on the backs of Germany military maps – what a great idea (there were paper shortages, but lots of maps). There were a few “tourist” maps of areas ravaged by war – a map of Hiroshima created by the Japan Tourist Bureau, with a blobby outline of the worst destruction and a 1919 tourist guide for European battlefields.

The exhibit also featured maps of a lighter note. JRR Tolkien’s map sketch of Rohan Gondor and Mordor, from 1948 were on graph paper. He used this map to calculate time and distance in which his characters moved. There were manuscripts and notes from the first Lonely Planet travel books and a 1981 souvenier map of Charles and Diana’s wedding procession through London.

JRR Tolkien’s map. (detail)

It is of note, the exhibit graphics are very nicely done. Each section of the exhibit had in a different pastel color, reminiscent of the colors of Sandborn Insurance maps. The maps themselves are all framed in uniform simple white frames that do not detract from the artwork. Exhibit graphics accompany you through the exhibit, drawing on the language of maps. Most of these graphics are on the floor, but occasionally climb up the walls. In the first room, you walk across a map of an imaginary village, with vaguely recognizable landmarks and place names. As you move through the exhibit, the graphics morph and reflect the visual language from maps in the exhibit. This was an interesting way to tie the exhibit together and get you to focus on what made one map different from the other.

I fear this post does not do the exhibit justice, especially without more images. There were so many more fabulous maps to tell you about, it’s hard to pin down the best.

For more images, see Twitter #BLMaps and the British Library exhibit page and press release.

If you are in London before March 2017, put this on your list of things to see!

One Comment

  1. ddavid
    Nov 17, 2016

    My husband and I attended a lecture at the Library about the Mapping War section of the exhibit this week. Dr. Barbara A. Bond discussed the escape and evasion maps from WWII. You have no doubt heard about these maps, but did you ever think about how they got into the soldiers hands? Some maps were sewn into the lining of their clothing, but many were sent directly to prison camps via bogus aid organizations created by the British government. The maps were hidden inside board games, such as Monopoly and sandwiched inside individual playing cards. Peel the card apart and you would have a piece of a map. She went on to explain how MI9 had created an entire industry and training program around escape and evade. Soldiers were trained in tactics and many people were involved in keeping the whole organization running. In the end, over 30,000 soldiers returned home because of these efforts. See more at

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