See maps of war, social movement & Middle Earth from the British Library's new exhibition

Harry Beck's 1931 original map of the London Underground

Maps can be beautiful, intriguing pieces of illustration that reflect (not always accurately) social and environmental trends as humanity navigates the world we live in.

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line is an exhibition opening at the British Library tomorrow, showcasing 200 maps from the library’s collection of over four million.

The exhibition aims to explore mapmaking through a period time which experienced war and its aftermath, the development of satellite imagery and some of the most famous fictional maps to aid classic novels.

Maps came to be at people’s fingertips for the first time in the 20th century. They were cheaper to produce, education became compulsory and people’s horizons were widened. Maps became a very important tool.

The exhibition explores this through five zones of mapping a new world, war, peace, the market and mapping for movement. Curator Tom Harper took five years on the project, and reminds us to look at the maps objectively.

Each mapmaker had to choose what to put in the middle, what to leave in and what to take out. This makes maps witnesses of the past, but not always reliable, he says.

Fictional maps of the exhibition include E.H. Shepard’s map of the Hundred Acre Wood first published on the endpapers of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh in 1926.

A map of Middle Earth sketched by JRR Tolkien in about 1948 is showcased. It was later printed for The Lord of the Rings in 1955. Even Bernard Sleigh’s map of Fairyland produced in 1918 is included, as a response to the end of World War I.

But it’s not all light-hearted. The exhibition showcases some of the World War I relief maps produced in 1917 covering the entire Western Front, made for British generals stationed behind the Front Line before the Battle of Passchendaele began (as seen below).


The War zone also includes war propaganda maps dropped from planes, a map depicting the resurgence of Chinese nationalism and even a Russian Soviet military map of Brighton. 


In the movement zone, where maps began to show the world not as a static object but one with constant movement, Atlantic Ocean Floor by Heinric Berann for the National Geographic magazine in 1968, popularised the idea of continental drifts (as seen below).

Other highlights of the exhibition include Harry Beck’s 1931 original sketch of the London Underground map, Jeremy Woods GPS tracking map of his life over 16 years and a tourist map by Liverpool Council with The Beetles used for the first time as a form of tourist attraction.

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line runs until March 1. It will be accompanied by courses and public events exploring themes of fictional maps, political propaganda and transport at the library.

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