23rd July 2010 Jonathan Harris

Magnificent Maps

“Maps are works fo art that need to be visually pleasing in order to convey information successfully”. Something all the artists in this exhibition at the British Library seem to have taken to heart.

A history and an art exhibition, while not exhaustive it gives a good snapshot of the map maker and the politics and nuances sometimes underlying the map’s creation and distribution. From giant and gorgeous Venetian posturing maps to the limited horizons of the mappa mundi there’s a lot to see and absorb. Lots of exquisite sea charts complete with the requisite ‘here there be dragons’ and puffy cheeked cherubs to blow the four winds.

Useful histories and asides, giving the history, sometimes the creator being more important than the owner and often the giver more important than the recipient. Rich colours, lost details, forgotten cities, mistaken and assumed geographies abound. Maps from different cultures, on velum, parchment, paper and silk (and in the gift shop, on tea towels). Charles II Atlas is massive, probably the largest ever made and the detail and penmanship of the Italian and Portuguese artisans is breathtaking.

Psalter World Map

Tapestries and woven maps, the importance of maps as status symbols, maps in the bedchamber (there’s a joke about men needing a map in the bedroom but I forget it) and maps to signify status.

The modern section is a little disappointing with only maps used as propaganda and visual devices – especially wartime for the dictator/defender to stand on and challenge the invading facists/interlopers. You won’t see any computer based work, no OS maps, no modelling and nothing approaching the information design of Tuffe etc. This doesn’t reach as far as modern infomatics.

If you like maps, if you’re serious about information design, or design and craft in general its very much worth a visit. It’s free and keeps similar hours to the main library. The interactive displays are clever and accessible, almost essential for some of the detailed work and narratives. Open 7 days a week.

There is a book in hardback and paperback to accompany the exhibition.

The Island