This article has been copied directly from the Museums Association website (http://www.museumsassociation.org) which is exclusively for its members.
As the London Transport Museum is holding an exhibition Mind the Map, this article discusses the potential of museums utilise and interpret their map collection as well as echoed the past exhibitions about maps in Britain.
Maps not only provide geographical accuracy but also 'have been seen as documents and works of art' (Barber, p.34). Recently a lot of artists realise the potential of maps rather than just curators and geographers (p.34) and some of them create amazing maps.
The article also features the Charles Booth's Map of Poverty of the Museum of London's People's City section which used the colour coding to identify the social class of each street in London instead of using text. But the method was still very powerful to draw the visitors in. Although it is impractical to display all 60 sections of the map together to form a large map, new technology such as a touchscreen digital interactive helps visitors to explore and learn more about 12 selected geographical areas.
What do a metre-wide 16th-century chart of the Mediterranean sea that is dripping with gold, and a mass-produced map of the London Underground have in common? Both have been chosen as objects for major exhibitions about maps and mapping.
The Mediterranean sea chart, a unique object that was produced in 1570 by the Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem, featured in the 2010 British Library exhibition Magnificent Maps.
The tube map, of which millions of copies are printed, is part of a series showcasing cover designs created by artists (including Mark Wallinger, Yinka Shonibare and Cornelia Parker) for Transport for London’s Art on The Underground initiative and can be seen at London Transport Museum’s Mind the Map exhibition (until 28 October).
These very different objects reflect the diversity of maps and the opportunities for telling different stories that they can provide.
Mind the Map, which is exploring the theme of journeys as part of the museum’s contribution to the Stories of the World Cultural Olympiad programme, is looking at the history of London transport maps as tools for navigation and as publicity material.
It features figures such as Harry Beck, creator of the world-famous diagrammatic tube map, and MacDonald Gill, a designer who pioneered the use of decorative maps as a form of publicity.
But curator Claire Dobbin says Mind the Map is more than just a chance for the museum to showcase some of its 4,000-strong collection of maps.
There is also a strong element of public participation, particularly through the museum’s young consultants. And the museum has commissioned six artists to produce works designed to bring new layers of meaning to the historic material.
“We are hoping it is going to be of interest to a really broad audience,” says Dobbin, who wants visitors to the exhibition to see that maps are more than just devices that aid navigation.
“Maps are very accessible and relevant to everyone in terms of their function but there is also something beautiful about them.”
“If you step back 20 years or so, you would find that maps were regarded as geographical objects,” says Peter Barber of the British Library, who curated Magnificent Maps.
“What has really happened since is that maps have been seen as documents and as works of art.”
Barber says regarding maps as documents has allowed people to look at them more critically. “The point about them is not that they are more or less accurate as representations of reality, but they reflect what people thought at the time.”
With Magnificent Maps, Barber presented the wall-maps in the context in which they were made. This was done by re-creating the settings in which they would have originally been seen and using the maps to show how they expressed a huge variety of views of the world.
But it is not just curators and geographers who have realised the potential of maps. Lots of artists are also inspired by them, something that the London Transport Museum exhibition has tapped into.
As well as featuring the six commissioned artists, Mind the Map highlights others who have used maps in their work, such as Simon Patterson. His work The Great Bear replaces the names of stations on the London Underground map with the names of film stars, explorers, saints and celebrities.
Manchester-born Susan Stockwell was one of the six artists commissioned for the London Transport Museum exhibition. Stockwell, although she does not want to be pigeon-holed as just a map artist, often features mapping in her work.
She is primarily interested in materials and has used rubber, paper, tea, computer memory boards and many other materials for map-based artworks. She gathered together old train tickets to create a map of the world for the London Transport Museum.
Stockwell is represented by the Tag Fine Arts gallery, which acts for other artists that use maps in the work, including Stephen Walter, whose work is featured in both Mind the Map and Magnificent Maps.
These and other artists, such as Grayson Perry, were included in a 2011 exhibition called the Art of Mapping held at the Air Gallery in London. There was also Whose Map Is It?, a 2010 exhibition held at Iniva in London that saw nine artists use maps and mapping to engage with social and political issues.
For Stockwell, it is the potential of maps as a metaphor to hang ideas on that is part of their appeal. Much of her work addresses topics such as post-colonialism, trade and geopolitics.
She has made a map out of money to represent the presence of the US in Afghanistan and a map of China created from gold leaf reflecting that country’s burgeoning wealth and power.">
Those who are interested in maps feel museums, not just artists, can do more to utilise their potential.
Chris Perkins, a senior lecturer in geography at the University of Manchester, co-curated Mapping Manchester, a 2009/10 exhibition held at the John Rylands Library. The aim was to show how maps respond to technology, society and economics over time.
Perkins believes that exhibitions often use maps as a shorthand to say something else, such as to represent a period of history. This is at the expense of what stories can be told about the map itself.
“There is often little critique or depth to how museums use maps,” Perkins says. “There is also the view that maps show the world as it is: they don’t, they tell stories.”
This comes at a time when the potential to interpret maps in interesting ways is growing. The Museum of London’s display of the Charles Booth Map of Poverty shows how new technology can be used (see box).
And at Abingdon County Hall Museum in Oxfordshire, which reopens this summer following a redevelopment, a variety of techniques, including work done with the Royal National Institute for the Blind, are being used to interpret a mid-16th-century tempera on parchment map of the local area.
Others, including the artist Jeremy Wood at the London Transport Museum, are using GPS technology to create maps for exhibitions.
Barber at the British Library is another who believes museum can do more to take advantage of the potential of maps to engage audiences.
“I think museums need to understand the potential of maps and not simply regard them as a backdrop for something more interesting,” he says. “Some museums that have maps do try and make the best use of them, but others haven’t the foggiest.”
The colour codes of class
One of the major features of the Museum of London’s £20.5m redevelopment, which opened in 2010, is an area devoted to Charles Booth’s Map of Poverty from 1887-89.
The Booth map is part of a section called People’s City that covers the period from the 1850s to the 1940s. This tells how London was a wealthy but divided city, with people living in separate worlds of rich and poor.
“The Booth map offers a powerful and highly visual interpretation of poverty in the late-19th century,” says Beverley Cook, the curator of social and working history at the Museum of London, who was responsible for the display.
“The impact of the colour coding used by Booth to identify the social class of each street in London needs little textual interpretation. Such a map can be very powerful in a gallery setting and immediately draws the visitor in.”
One of the challenges with displaying the Booth map is that it has been cut into over 60 sections. A plan to piece all 60 sections together to create one large map was rejected as impractical. Instead, new technology was used to help display the map.
The Booth map exhibit features original sections of the map shown over a wallpaper graphic of the entire map. In the centre of the display, a touchscreen digital interactive enables visitors to explore deeper and learn more about the 12 different geographical areas selected.
Booth’s maps are still being used by those involved in researching poverty in London today. A recent project by experts from Queen Mary’s, University of London, attempted to help local authority and NHS services tackle poor health by mapping those people they thought were at risk from type 2 diabetes, which is linked with poverty.
The researchers’ findings revealed “startling similarities” to the maps created by Booth.