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Maps and Propaganda

May 16, 2010

Alix Christie in Intelligent Life:

As we grow ever more disembodied in virtual space, it is enlightening to consider the nature and purpose of maps. The curators at the British Library recently sifted through 26,000 of the 4.5m that make up its collection—the world’s largest. The hundred or so they selected to show, most for the first time in public, reveal the perennial human obsession with finding one’s place in the world.

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art” offers an array of milestones, including the first showing of Henry VIII’s map of Italy since his reign and the first American map made by the colonists with the Prime Meridian set at Philadelphia. The largest bound atlas in the world is here (the six-foot Klencke Atlas, gift of Dutch merchants to Charles II of England), as is the tiniest, created for Queen Mary’s dollhouse. This dazzling display of mainly European cartography from antiquity to the cold war is presented in galleries set up like a royal palace, with exhibits leading successively to the figurative and literal centre of these bygone worlds.

These elaborate maps are reflections of power and standing. In medieval and Renaissance mappa mundi, God sat atop the world; the monarch sat before it, accepting fealty. From Venice to Great Britain, a map’s patron placed itself squarely at the centre of its graphic empire. All is propaganda. One intriguing modern map shows Hitler’s plan to swallow chunks of Poland and the Sudetenland as early as 1935; revealed too soon, it was withdrawn and hastily recast. [More]

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