Cartophile, is that the word for somebody who loves maps? Well it is now. I am a cartophile. Old maps, new maps, imaginary maps, any old map, I love them all. Imagine my excitement when I spotted that the British Library has delved into its extensive collection to put on a show of over 200. Despite the title not all of the maps on show are twentieth century, Mercator’s atlas is here, but rather the focus is on the century when maps went from being the preserve of the wealthy to being readily available to all of us. Sometimes when you look forward to something it can be a disappointment. Not this show. It even has a map on the floor!
Right at the beginning, there is, naturally, a map of the exhibition; an electronic one that shows where all your fellow cartophiles are. As they move from looking Mercator’s map to the General’s map of the Somme, you see their representative dot move. That General’s map, it has all the familiar Ordnance Survey symbols and some nifty decoupage to make understanding the contour lines easier. The Tommies’ map is shown next to it, far more portable copies for them. During war time accurate maps are as vital as good guns. On show though is a map of Brighton dating from 1990. No war then, I hear you cry. What makes this one unusual is that all the text is in Russian, it was one of a stash of maps found in Latvia after the Soviet Union collapsed. A scary thought that the Russians had such detailed maps of the UK. Soliders are often handed escape maps printed on fabric; after the Second World War one ingenious seamstress got round rationing by making this dress out of silk escape maps.
Its not all war. Anybody who has ever visited London will have navigated their way around the tube system using a map that shows how the routes connect rather than where they actually are. Harry Beck was the man who came up with this idea, on show is his original sketch. It is just round the corner from Tolkein’s notebooks containing his own sketch of Middle Earth, along with incredibly detailed plot notes.
Even if you don’t feel the need to collect every single sheet in the Ordnance Survey Explorer series, this is a fascinating exhibition. Maps and mapping changed completely during the twentieth century going from being the preserve of the wealthy to mass ownership. Now everybody keeps an electronic map in their pocket but the paper ones continue to exert a fascination for me. As you would expect, the British Library has a fine book shop and I love the café. Most people tap away on laptops, those that don’t either chat over book strewn tables or sit with their nose in a book.
MAPS AND THE 20TH CENTURY: DRAWING THE LINE
British Library, 96 Euston Road London NW1 2DB
4 November 2016 – 1 March 2017
Admission: Adults £12, children and members free, other concessions available
Open: Monday – Friday 9.30am-6pm, Saturday 9.30am-5pm, Sunday 11am-5pm