You probably heard of the Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library in London. It’s free, it’s magnificent, and it still runs until 19 September. Great, so what?
To be honest, I wasn’t terribly interested to begin with. Medieval tapestry and dusty rolls of faded paper aren’t really my thing. I just thought that I ought to put in an appearance and pretend to be interested like everyone else. You know, be part of the geographical fellowship and all that.
So, a few weeks ago, I went to see it. And something unexpected happened.
Extract from Fra Mauro World Map, c.1450. Source: http://www.bl.uk/magnificentmaps
The exhibition totally blew me away. It wasn’t just the huge scale, the detail, or the craftsmanship of the hand-drawn cartography. It wasn’t that they were historic works of art, and displayed as such. No, there was something else – something mysterious. It was almost as if these maps, some of them 500 years old, had multiple dimensions that transcended the flatness of the parchment. Something that today’s plethora of satellite mapping or #geoweb can’t quite offer. On the contrary, scientific precision obliterates it.
These maps show mountains not as a set of contour lines but as pointy rocks – the way mountains actually look. They show rivers, castles, dragons, the seas and the edge of the world. They have scary places marked ‘unknown’. These maps don’t just display topography but also personal landmarks, interests, waypoints, hopes and fears. They are much more human.
And then I got it. These maps are as if drawn by children. Their creators should take this as a compliment. Let’s leave the satnav to the spatially challenged masses. Wouldn’t it be great if we drew our maps this way again, exploring the world like children?
Extract from middle-aged East Devonian’s World Map. Not exhibited at British Library.