EXHIBITION:
Lie of the Land


The British Library
27th July 2001 - 7 April 2002
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Being a regular reader at the Map Library, I never cease to be amazed by the range, depth and wealth of material that the Library owns - and that is only in my own relatively narrow fields of interest.  This outstanding exhibition is a welcome, and timely, reminder, of the great wealth of cartographic materials that the Library has, whether in the Map Library itself, or in the other specialist collections, Rare Books, Manuscripts and the Oriental and India Office.

Indeed, the Library’s Chief Executive, in her opening address at the reception commented on how wonderful it was to her - and for her - to see such a fine and varied display of maps, without one having to be borrowed from another institution.  One can only hope - as a personal aside - that the powers that be at the BL start to realise that their obligations extend rather further than counting the number of readers, and reader’s requests, in each Reading Room.  Without the collections, and commitment to developing the collections, so much hard work by past generations will go to waste.

The display gallery is large and spacious, so it was a great pleasure to be able to stand back from William Roy’s huge manuscript map of Scotland, so as to take in its full extent, or to be able to get up close to the more intricate items.

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At an exhibition of this kind, everyone has their own favourites.  Mine - a recent acquisition by the Library - is a small map, not particularly interesting looking, or striking, that one might easily pass by, without second thought.  It is Gerard Mercator’s map of  ‘BRITANNIÆ, NORMANDIÆ ET PICARDIÆ CONFINIVMQVE ...’, which I’ve seen many times.  Or have I? 

This example is printed from a completely new plate, which extends the map eastwards into Picardy, but retaining the original title and attribution to Mercator.  However, in the second title ‘Ample description de la Bretaigne ...’ is English text, betraying an English bias and so, presumably suggesting an English origin for the plate. The text reads ‘A large description of Britannie, Normandie and Picardie and the countries adioyninge, in which are playnelie seene those places, either all redy manfullie taken, or here after to be assaulted & besieged partlie by y.e frenche King him selfe and of he most valiant confederate Englismen.’

This then is part of the point of the exhibition, that what the map says says as much, or more, about the mapmaker than the area depicted, representing his own foibles, prejudices, wishful-thinking, imagination, or darker motives - power, manipulation, hate, revenge, political and religious fanaticism, and the ways that maps - in all their seeming innocence on paper - can be bent to these purposes.

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Each of the maps is accompanied by a brief caption, putting the item into the context of the exhibition, and many are accompanied by one line witticisms - one can almost feel the fun the staff will have had thinking these up - that set the tone for particular themes.

From a nationalistic perspective, I was fascinated by the range of items on display relating to foreign plans to invade the British Isles, ranging from a manuscript plan drawn for Henry VIII showing Brighton attacked in 1514, William Lambarde’s map of the warning Beacons of Kent prepared in expectation of the Spanish Armada (1585), a French manuscript of the 1760’s planning an invasion through Kent, while other fleets attacked Plymouth and Portsmouth, Second World War German bombing maps, right up to very detailed invasion maps for the Thames Estuary prepared by the Soviet Army General Staff in 1977.

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Also interesting were maps of Britain’s forays abroad - Thomas Holme’s wall-map of Pennsylvania, published by Robert Greene and John Thornton, in which the new colony was described almost as a paradise on earth, to promote emigration there, or Jacques Callot’s wall-map of the siege of the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle in 1627 by French Catholic forces commanded by Cardinal Richelieu, with ill-fated English attempts, organised by the Duke of Buckingham, to assist the defenders, events immortalised in ‘The Three Musketeers’. 
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Maps produced for governmental purposes also abounded. Many, such as the ‘Red-line Map’ showing how government, far-removed from the scene, could alter boundaries, and assign the native people accordingly, at the stroke of a pen. Or, in the case of the John Smith map of New England, the names of the native settlements were replaced by “proper” names selected by the young Prince of Wales.

As Simon Jenkins, in a perceptive review in ‘The Times’, of London (3rd August 2001) put it: in 1616 Captain John Smith ethnically cleansed the “barbarians” from the settlement of Anmoughcawgen and renamed it Cambridge ... the Indians were literally mapped off the map. Will political correctness now demand the old name of Anmoughcawgen be restored ...?” 

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Then there was the ‘Secret Map’ of London, a map produced under Emergency Powers legislation at the time of the General Strike in 1926, to show the location of important or vulnerable sites of government, should the disruption escalate.  Produced by the War Office, the map was deemed so secret that when the strike was over, every copy of the map was rounded up and burnt. Or so it was thought, until the ‘70’s when an example was found in the Ministry of Defence, and passed on to the British Library.
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Among the array of more sinister propaganda maps, the one that caught my eye was a German Propaganda ministry map of the United States, prepared before the Second World War, designed to show at a glance the percentage of first and second generation white European immigrants with a German or Austrian background in each state of the Union, so that the Germans could effectively target their propaganda to encourage voters to take an isolationist viewpoint in case of war. Scary stuff. 
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It is particularly encouraging to see that the British Press has enthusiastically greeted the exhibition, which has been widely reviewed outside the normal confines of the exhibition listings. Even more encouraging was the large number of visitors in the exhibition, on a quiet weekday afternoon, when I lasted visited the exhibition.

Tony Campbell, and the staff of the Map Library (not to forget staff from Exhibitions) have done an excellent job in selecting, labelling and displaying this visual feast of treasures, an exhibition I cannot recommend highly enough, either to the dedicated map-buff or those with but a casual interest - there really is something for everyone.  All the more credit is due when one considers that the whole exhibition was conceived, assembled, and put on display in about four months.

Unfortunately, the time-scale did not allow for the production of a catalogue or guide to the collection, and I would heartily encourage the Library to address this, so a more permanent record of this excellent exhibition survives, and can be circulated to encourage more visitors.  This is my only slight gripe about an otherwise quite wonderful exhibition, which deserves the widespread praise it has received.

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For full details please visit: www.bl.uk
or contact Craig Westwood 
Tel: 020 7412 7115 (craig.westwood@bl.uk)

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