Magnificent Maps is an exhibition of old and rare maps, dating from the 1400s to the present day. The exhibition is organised in a series of spaces, each representing different rooms in which maps would have been originally viewed. We journey through a palace’s gallery, audience chamber, bedchamber and cabinet, a secretary of state’s room, a merchant’s house, and a schoolroom. Each of these map-rooms contains a range of different maps, with differing geography, scales, perspectives, and colours which transport viewers around the world as they trace their fingers across the glass frames. It is interesting that so many of the map-rooms are domestic; maps too can be domestic objects, like so many of the ‘dead objects’ the autopsies group is researching.
Thinking about the status of these old maps as dead objects provokes many questions. Given that the depiction of the world that they present is now regarded as incorrect, what use can they now have? They are not accurate representations of the world, and not useful in the way that a modern map is, so are ‘out of use’ in a way resembling our other dead objects. But the maps are so beautiful and intricate that they are still in use today as art objects (as well as windows onto the worlds that created them). Indeed, the exhibition explains that in their original form, many of the maps on display were art objects, filling galleries and stored in curio cabinets. So the old maps are dead objects in one sense, but remain in use in another.
My favourite maps in the exhibition included one of the world’s smallest maps, engraved on a tiny German coin from 1773, and the world’s largest atlas (1.75 x 2.31m when open – taller than me!) which was made for Charles II in 1660. It’s still in an amazing condition. Another favourite was a 1551 map of Rome by Leonardo Bufalini which depicts ancient and contemporary Rome together on the same map, using different shadings to demonstrate the change in the city over time. So the map represents three dimensions, and movement in space and time. The Frau Mauro World Map, originating from around 1450, which forms the main advertising image for the exhibition, is distinctive in its complete lack of correspondence with our understanding of the shape of the continents today. The continents blur together unrecognisably, and are ‘upside down’ compared to usual maps made in the Northern hemisphere. The Garden of Eden appears in a separate small globe in the lower right corner of the sheet, unusual for the time, as Eden normally featured within the world itself. The exhibition’s accompanying book explains that ‘Frau Mauro could find no evidence for the existence of the Garden of Eden on Earth, and so he daringly places it just outside the world outline.’
These continuing different perspectives and representations of the world make the exhibition a transportive and dislocating visit. Unfailingly, the visitors (myself included) would approach each map, try to make sense of it and its relationship to modern day maps, and then begin pouring over it identifying places we recognised and retracing journeys with our fingers. The fun in this seemed to come from precisely the fact that the maps represented the world in a very different shape than we understand today. It is interesting to think about the exhibition’s map-rooms in the context of film theorist Giuliana Bruno’s work. Bruno writes that ‘[m]aps on a wall transform the wall itself, turning it into a permeable surface that can be entered in different ways and travelled through.’  Map-rooms enabled their original inhabitants to journey through them, travelling the world from their homes. Today, the exhibition’s recreated map-rooms are filled with tourists who have travelled across the world to London, only to find themselves transported again by the maps, tracing their journeys on them, and pointing out home.
1. Peter Barber and Tom Harper, Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art (London: The British Library, 2010), p. 9
2. The British Library exhibition held a copy, dating from 1804, of this map by William Frazer
3. Magnificent Maps, p. 52
4. Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (New York: Verso, 2002), p. 275
Photo: British Library Magnificent Maps promotional material.