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The beauty of maps

There’s a fascinating programme on BBC TV called The Beauty of Maps in celebration of ‘Magnificent Maps’ exhibition staring soon at the British Library in London.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of maps in history. In fact the exhibition also has the title of ‘Power Propaganda and Art’, which shows their real significance.
Nowadays its easy to know where you are – SatNav, Google Maps and specialist maps galore – it is hard to get really lost almost wherever you are, and its impossible to imagine a world without maps.
As a pictorial representation of the world that we live in, maps were probably the earliest pictures that humans drew, but as people started to leave their own surroundings and travel around and then to other countries they needed some more accurate.
So maps making started to develop. First people had to understand the size of countries and places. When maps first started being drawn it was common for important places to be bigger in proportion to their size; often in the centre of the known world!
But people didn’t understand where they were in the world or the scale involved in distances. It was only when cartography became a science and mathematics could measure and represent size accurately, that maps really started to mean something.
When, in 1570, Mercator published his Atlas (a word Mercator chose to describe his first collection of maps) using his revolutionary ‘projection’, it transformed mapmaking. Using maths he constructed the first accurate view of the world and people could now travel from their armchair.
In fact this golden age of cartography came just at the right time as it changed the world of commerce. Nations became powerful as they began racing to expand overseas and discover the riches on the other side of the world.
So maps also became symbols of power – ‘the Empire on which the sun never sets’ was the phrase that was often used to describe the map featuring the British Empire coloured in red – as they helped show people their place in the world, create national identity and made politics real.
Hopefully those days are over and people will see and use maps for the objects of beauty and wonder that they are. You just have to look at those incredible satellite pictures of the earth to marvel at how Mercator got it so right all those centuries ago and what maps mean to us today.

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If anyone can recommend a good road map of Catalunya, I’d be very grateful. It took me 1.5 hours to arrive at my son’s friend’s birthday party yesterday thanks to my misguided directions which i had copied down meticulously from Google Maps. Talk about going round in circles!
When we eventually realised the party was actually less than 5kms away, the return journey thankfully only took about 10 mins.

As much as I love poring over maps, I’m definitely going to invest in a satnav!

By Jenny Bedwell on 2010 05 17

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