Russian moon globe 1962
Review

‘Maps and the 20th Century’ at the British Library

Image credit: British Library

E&T’s features editor visits a major new exhibition in London which demonstrates the vital role maps play in both political and everyday life.

It was like a greeting from my childhood… The world’s first Moon Globe, made in the Soviet Union in 1962 using data from the 1959 Luna 3 mission to photograph the far side of the Moon, was among the main items I found on display when I visited the exhibition ‘Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line’, which opened at the British Library in London this week.

Exactly the same globe stood at the entrance of the Yuri Gagarin Planetarium in my native city of Kharkov. Opened by Yuri Gagarin himself at the end of 1961 (I was at that opening!), shortly after his pioneering space flight, the planetarium was my favourite childhood haunt. I would spend days there, and the Moon Globe was very familiar.

This astounding show, in both depth and scope, includes a number of other reminders of the former USSR among its exhibits, none of them half as benign as the Moon Globe, I am sorry to say. Among them are a detailed map of the Soviet Gulag, listing every single one of the hundreds of Stalin-era labour camps; the so-called ‘Ronald Reagan’s Map of the World’ with the space occupied by the Soviet Empire painted red and captioned “Godless communists, liars and spies”, and many others.

Yet the exhibit that struck me most was the vast ‘Soviet Military Map of Brighton’, depicting every minute feature of that British city and the surrounding area with truly military precision, with the wordy legend describing in small print (in Russian) every single building, enterprise, railway station etc. The map was printed on an off-chance of a nuclear war with the West, and the date of its production – 1990, just when the West was led to believe that perestroika and glasnost were in full swing inside the dying empire, is cynical and blood-chilling.

Maps have always been a powerful weapon in military and other kinds of propaganda, but to my considerable relief, the ‘Mapping Peace’ section of the exhibition is much larger that the ‘Mapping War’ one.

The technology of mapping – from the land surveys of the 1900s to the first satellite images of the year 2000, precursors of modern GPS gadgets, is one the main focal points of ‘Maps and the 20th Century’. Technological, scientific and engineering advances are obvious not just in the above-mentioned Moon Globe, but in the map of the Atlantic Ocean Floor, an interactive map of San Francisco’s earthquakes, the 1917 Relief Map of the Western Front and many others.

“The history of the 20th century mapping is presented here for the first time,” Jamie Andrews, the British Library’s head of culture and learning told E&T at the press opening. “It is of course only a small fraction of our map collection,” he added with a smile.

Well, that may be true, but to me the exhibited items were sufficient to underline the vital role played by maps in history and in everyday life.

Here’s one fascinating technology touch, revealed to E&T by Tom Harper, the exhibition’s lead curator: the route of each visitor around the exhibition gets electronically recorded (anonymously of course) and becomes part of the overall interactive and ever-changing map of the exhibition’s popularity, displayed near the exit.

I can only recommend E&T readers to visit ‘Maps and the 20th Century’, to look at the maps and, by doing so, to get involved in the mapping process themselves.

Details of the exhibition, which runs until 1 March 2017, are at https://www.bl.uk/events/maps-and-the-20th-century-drawing-the-line

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