Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art

Peter Watts reviews the new exhibit on Magnificent Maps at the British Library for the New Statesman. He explains that the exhibit shows that, historically, maps were not objective, but designed to project the thoughts, motives and fears of those who created or commissioned them. Such maps were captivating works of art and were displayed on the walls of great houses and palaces, next to paintings and sculptures. Their heyday was between 1580 and 1780, after which Enlightenment ideas took hold, determining that maps had value only if they were geographically accurate. This belief held for centuries.

Maps are often about the ownership of space. Rachel Campbell Johnson in the Times says:
This is a show to be interpreted at a deep cultural level. The more closely you examine the objects, the more you find yourself embroiled in the ambitions and intrigues of their subtle worlds. Maps, this show argues, are as much to do with philosophy as geography. They are not two-dimensional pictures of the world but windows on to a subtle and complex world view. 

For a modern example, see Stephen Walter's The Island (2008) i.e. London satirizing a view of the city as an island using a range of symbols, for example, to find a place to have a good drink or see a beautiful view. This is a map for Londoners and perhaps tourists.

Does everyone know Jonathan Z. Smith's 1993 book Map is not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions? Some of it is available here. Smith argues that mental maps of the cosmos follow particular patterns.

An imperial map ordains that everything should have its proper place within its proper domain, and “guarantees meaning and value through structures of congruity and conformity” (p. 292). This kind of map is the one most familiar to religious studies e.g. in the work of Mircea Eliade on sacred space. Smith considers that the development of scribal elites in the ancient world attest to the presence of this world-view as their work on behalf of cultic and monarchic institutions served to identify temples as sacred centers around which the rest of the world had to organize itself. In their world view the  monarch is the divinely sanctioned political/religious authority.

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