Forget the geoweb – let children map our world

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:

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.


8 thoughts on “Forget the geoweb – let children map our world

  1. Maps have always provides more than the bare facts, not just directions or geographical guidance – the satellite maps give you just the bare facts – no other messages – that is what’s missing.

  2. Your own Mappa Mundi

    Spot on Thierry.

    The thing that struck me about the exhibition was that none of the maps had anything to do with navigation and most were about presenting a world or local view, mainly political in some vaguely spatial context.


  3. This is spot on – what you touch on is what went missing in the otherwise excellent exhibit (then again I’m a medieva-nut) – the historic context is well covered, but less so social context IMHO. An art historian could have explained that perspective was not realised until the Renaissance, so that medieval maps that appear cartoonish actually represent supreme craftsmanship for that time! You are right however, in that most medieval documents – like also theatre plays – were purposefully simplified to convey info to a relatively low level of education. And is balancing both not what we do to this day in this increasingly madda mundi?

  4. Your right about the way precision and accuracy have killed the art of communication that maps really should be, particularly online.

    We need to remember that maps are more than just telling people where things are.
    Look at the sameness across all the online consumer apps and even special purpose web maps are trying to blend in by adopting the same symbology rules and behaviour. Talk about cultural imperialism and the march of sameness.

    It’s such a lost opportunity to tell a story, to delight and surprise people, to really communicate with people and differentiate your self from the masses.

    What is really annoying is that there used be good technology constraint to avoid cartography online ie performance of dynamic graphic rendering. Today with cached tiles there is minimal impact on the user experience and if done correctly can really enhance the users’ experience and reduce the time it takes to get the message.

    There is a truism about Jakob’s Law but it doesn’t mean you have to lose your identity or purpose.

    So lets start to remember the forgotten art of cartography and really tell a story rather than just the facts.

  5. Urrrm! I think they had more than has been let on. I mean, “Sire, tis 40 leagues that way (pointing)” would give you little chance of hitting your destination!
    They either had pretty good maps or only a few roads – I’d plump for the latter, so there was little need for a map and lets face it, it’s a small leap from “tis 40 leagues that way (pointing) to “in 100 metres take the 3rd exit”!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s