Nick Hackworth

Lie of the land, British Library

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

As innocuous as they may seem, your A-Z and World Atlas are, like all maps, prejudiced and biased. To prove the point the British Library has assembled an exhibition that spans five centuries of mapmaking and includes exhibits from all over the world. Not that the British Library is suggesting that all cartographers are born liars (though based on the evidence on show it seems a good number of them are), merely that all maps are inherently subjective and that the assumptions upon which they are based has a serious effect on our perception of the world.

Even the complex but apparently apolitical task of mapping a round earth onto a flat piece of paper is fraught with ideological dangers. A holographic display near the entrance reveals at one angle the familiar image of the Mercator projection of the world, drawn up in 1569 and still a global standard, and at another the Peters projection created in 1974. The former accurately represents the shape of the continents but not their size, the latter their size but not their shape. So, taking the maxim that “size matters” to heart and given that Europe and the US profit most from his misrepresentation of size, it is easy to see why Mercator’s projection is seen, literally, as an example of the first world’s overblown sense of self-importance. In the Peters projection, dominated by the land masses of the southern hemisphere, Europe suddenly looks like a geographical backwater.

Elsewhere, maps of all kinds are on display, some drawn-up with sinister intent, others amusing but mostly harmless expressions of the vanity of those who commissioned them. Into the sinister category fall a Nazi map pinpointing concentrations of Jews and gypsies in Slovakia, a map to aid Cromwell’s brutal exploitation of Ireland and a map drawn up during the TUC’s General Strike of 1926 to help the British government suppress a portion of its own people. Meanwhile, a pompous map of the great Quaker families in Darlington, their houses lavishly illustrated and names listed on the map key, circumscribing the acceptable gene pool, represents the cartographic equivalent of vanity publishing.

The exhibition dries up around the present age but in fact our digital age has seen the link between information and power grow ever stronger and thus we can expect more additions to the sinister category in the future.

British Library, 96 Euston Road. Until 7 April 2002