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Maps and Power

Ian Cooke and Tom Harper from the British Library discuss how to read a map.
I’m here with Tom Harper, Maps Curator at the British Library. And the maps we’re going to look at today range from outright political caricature to some quite detailed scientific representation– or representation of scientific discoveries. However, I think even with the latter, there’s a risk of taking too much at face value. That’s right. Even maps that claim to be objectively describing space are reductive. This is just a simple fact of life for maps. No map can show everything. It has to make choices. And those choices, naturally have to be subjective. What maps leave out, their silences, were written about in the 1980s by JB Harley in his critique of maps as documents reinforcing power and control.
But the context in which a map is looked at is also very important as well. Who looked at a map? Where was it looked at? And what sort of interpretation might people who looked at the map have? This map, produced in the early 18th century in Paris, shows the small, vulnerable state of Savoy in Europe between Louis the 14th’s France in the West and the Holy Roman Empire in the East. The map’s context was on display in a royal gallery, in a palace, amongst other maps of other territories. The depiction of the portrait of Louis the 14th, not the Savoy ruler Victor Amadeus, would have been there to remind of royal power and actually state France’s intent on annexing Savoy.
So the image up there could be quite kind of dramatic in a way. And I think what also really strikes me about this map is the level of detail that you see depicted across the whole thing. I mean there’s almost no space that’s left undescribed. And it reminds me of a concept that Chandra Mukerji brings up in her book Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles where she talks about territoriality as being kind of a preoccupation amongst political elites in France. And it’s this idea to sort of almost kind of express and enact power through a very detailed representation of landscape. Yeah. And you’re right. The map is absolutely full of depiction.
And this is really a feature of mapping in this period, teeming with detail. And what you find are that the borders of countries and states are also very closely defined. And the shapes of borders and the shapes of countries becomes very rooted and recognised in people’s minds from this period onwards. So this next map really does take that understanding and knowledge of borders as read, doesn’t it, amongst its audiences. It really depends on people being able to recognise both the shape of Europe and also kind of how the countries within Europe relate to one another. That’s true in parts. But notice how parts of Eastern Europe are far less well-defined than other parts of Europe here.
The map is a satirical news sheet that would have been sold on British news stands and would have informed the British audience of the political situation in Europe in 1877. It shows the European nations in a variety of national stereotypes. And there are some recognisable figures there as well. But notice how Russia is shown as a grasping octopus with its tentacles strangling parts of Poland and the Middle East as well. Now, this image of Russia as a grasping octopus really continues in satirical maps for quite a long time after this. And the image of it, I think in this case especially, shows movement, not staid and secure borders. And this really gives the impression of uncertainty and change.
So alongside dynamism, you have a real kind of definite description of difference and also some sort of threat menacing there as well. The next map that we’re going to look at is almost entirely different. It sort of presents a sense of continuity and of unity together. So this is obviously a very large and impressive map. And I think it strikes quite a contrast with what we’ve just looked at in the sense of where the Syria comic map was talking about diversity, difference, threat, and so on, here you’ve got an image that’s almost just talking about unity, and stability, and almost kind of standardisation across a wide area. You’re absolutely right. And this is a giant map of European Russia.
And it was produced for the 1896 Russian Exhibition of Industry and Art in Novgorod in that year. It was an educational map. And teachers across Russia were given grants to travel to Novgorod to see the exhibition and the map. And the map was later used in schools. And it presents Russia as this unproblematic whole, including Finland and Poland as well. Now, you can see how there’s sort of been a real attempt to make this map appealing, hasn’t there? I mean you’ve got all this quite, almost charming, kind of figures and animals and landscapes telling this whole story.
And I guess the other thing that strikes me about this map is kind of this scientific information you see around the side, the charts and the graphs, and it starts to kind of describe all around the border the products of the different parts of the region being depicted. And it calls to mind the work of Nick Baron at the University of Nottingham when he’s writing, in the mapping of a liberal modernity, about, in the later 19th century, the sort of Russian official use of maps as a planning tool. So they’re very much seeing them as kind of objective representations that the land is actually the land.
And then through this sort of standardisation across a very large territory, attempting to use mapping as part of this plan to exert power over a wide territory. Yes. The map is problematic and subjective in many ways. It uses the illusion of science in the scientific descriptions around here and this wonderful artistic appearance here to present contested territory as an unproblematic whole. And these two things, the science and the arts, were described very well in a recent exhibition Lines in the Ice about the Arctic and European engagement there.
So now we’re going to look at two maps, one from Canada in the 1940s and one from Russia in the 1980s, that both show different ways of representing different methodologies of making claims over territory in the Arctic. Well, this map of Canada shows what is called sector theory. And it uses the careful scientific measurement of the Earth’s parallels to scientifically claim a portion of the Arctic, based on accepted and existing land borders. Now, you see that these red lines here extending from Canada are actually demarcating a portion of the Arctic. It appears objective and fair. And in this way, Canada’s claims its piece of the pie. So this map here is doing something slightly different, isn’t it? Yeah.
This map shows yet another way of claiming territory. Although in this case, it is the careful description and recording of physical features on the seabed as a means of extending national borders beyond and under the sea. I mean it’s quite prestigious looking, isn’t it? I mean even though it’s scientific representations, it’s still quite a beautiful looking map. That’s correct. Yeah. I mean this map wasn’t originally produced to support Russian claims to the Arctic. But it was later used when Russia chose to do this in the year 2000 and after. But the very object of the atlas, the Russian Atlas of the Arctic, is very significant, I think, because producing an atlas symbolises, I think, Russia’s claim to the Arctic.
So we’ve been looking at a series of maps today, which are different in their appearance and in the context of their creation. Yet, they all tell a story either about political power and influence or about identity, either shared identity or in relation to others around the world.
In this film, Ian Cooke and Tom Harper from the British Library discuss a variety of maps from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The maps convey different types of information. However, in different ways, they all provide clues as to how modern states use maps to claim political power over the areas depicted.

Maps are powerful tools for representing a wide range of data. They may feature landscapes, cities, populations, figures, and symbols. And they make visible how points of data relate to each other spatially. Because of this, maps have a strong influence on the way in which we “see the world”. In this film, Ian and Tom argue that the presentation of knowledge and discovery in maps has been used as a means to make claims over territory.

All maps are selective in the data that they show. Understanding the choices made in what to represent, and also what to leave obscured, is vital for interpreting these maps as political tools. In this film, Tom poses three questions we might ask when considering maps as political objects:

  • Who saw this map?
  • Where was the map shown?
  • What was the intended impact of the map on its audience?

Asking these questions helps us to understand the ways in which other researchers on geography and politics have described the relationship between control of territory and the exercise of state power.

Histories are located in particular spaces and places. Think about a theme that you would like to conduct research on. Might you use a map to form a clearer sense of where the events you are investigating took place? If so, what type of map might you use? What do different types of maps reveal, or conceal, about the history you are exploring?

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