Maps are more than lines on paper. Like letters or diaries, they tell human stories. They reflect the views of their makers, or their intended users, about what is important, and they reveal just as much by what they exclude as what they include.
Often delicately drawn and brightly colored, they can appear innocent, even whimsical. Upon closer inspection, though, some disclose a racial, religious or ethnic agenda. Maps can be important tools of political propaganda and control, used for good or evil, to lead or mislead.
"All maps are subjective. In fact, the subjectivity is what makes them special," says Peter Barber, curator of Lie of the Land the Secret Life of Maps, a British Library exhibition designed to challenge popular assumptions about the role of maps. "A map can be unexceptional or highly controversial," says Barber. "What looks like a map can be a political tract. If you want to understand mentalities, maps are a good place to begin."
The show consists of 150 exceptional maps from around the world, from a 1465 Spanish navigation chart to a 1999 Canadian map of Iqaluit, capital of the autonomous Inuit territory of Nunavut. Walking through the exhibition, which runs until next April, Barber points out a World War II-era ethnic map of Slovakia. It is, he says, "perhaps the most sinister in the exhibition." Used by the Nazis in deporting Jews and Roma to death camps, "it showed them roughly how many railway carriages they’d need."
Equally disturbing is one quantifying the rubble following the 1942 demolition of the Czechoslovak village of Lidice. The map was designed to help landscapers make it appear that Lidice had never existed. After the war, when Czechoslovakia was expelling Germans, it was used in an official poster to paint all Germans with the brush of "Nazi savagery." Says Barber: "On the one hand, you’re looking at the map of an atrocity. On the other, you’re looking at a smokescreen that shielded another atrocity."
A guide accompanying a wartime map of Dresden points out: "Tenement buildings in the inner residential zone may be burnt out under heavy [incendiary bomb] attack. The effect of [high explosives] is not hard to imagine." The map was produced more than a year before Allied bombs rained down on the German city in 1945. Also on display is a map depicting the provisional German-Czechoslovak border in 1938. Via headphones, visitors can hear British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain defend it as marking the end of Germany’s territorial ambitions. A map from the early 1940s shows the percentage of Central European immigrants in each U.S. state information used by the Nazis to target their propaganda in the hope of keeping the U.S. out of the war.
Maps have long been used to foster religious as well as political agendas. A Portuguese world view from 1623 shows Catholic Spain and Portugal dominating the planet. An English map of Lancashire in 1579 identifies the homes of potentially treasonous Catholic gentry. A 17th century map, reconciling Biblical events with the physical world, pinpoints the Garden of Eden. "Paradice" is clearly found inside the borders of modern-day Iraq. Opposite that depiction of heaven is one of hell the soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon’s World War I map of the trenches of Flanders.
Touching a lighter note are jigsaw puzzle maps, produced as far back as 1766 as teaching aids. Other whimiscal items include maps showing England or Cyprus as the center of the world, and one upside-down view putting Australia at the top. A topographical map of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) shows a contoured hill in the shape of an elephant an invention of weary men at the end of a long day’s surveying trek.
The first map of the moon drawn in France in 1679 from early telescopic observations features an ethereal maiden. And there is the 1996 "official" X-Files map. Do more weird things happen along the U.S. east coast than anywhere else in North America, as the popular television series suggests? The truth is out there. But you won’t necessarily find it on a map.