The dark charts

If you think maps are about getting from A to B, you’re wrong.

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art
British Library, London NW1

Until recently, visitors to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation headquarters in Wapping would walk down a corridor towards a wall-mounted map of the world, where three circles represented the Americas, Europe and Australasia. Above it was the News Corp logo and each continent was dotted with blobs to indicate the location of the corporation's bases. There was something of the retro-futurist Bond villain about it - an atmosphere not helped by the nearby portrait of King Rupert himself - but also an unwitting nod to the great merchants and statesmen of the past. For them, the decorative map was a way to demonstrate wealth, knowledge and power.

This use of the map has inspired the British Library's current exhibition, open until 19 September, which 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.
In 1861, the library spent £150 on a world map - which is on display here - made in 1550 for Henry II of France. Some baulked at paying so much for a map that had no practical purpose. That it was both attractive and unique was not considered relevant.

The exhibition is divided into a series of spaces, each corresponding to the type of room where different styles of map would have been displayed: the grand and the glittering in the eye-catching gallery, the self-glorifying in the audience chamber and the most didactic
in the schoolroom. The exhibition features 100 maps, 90 of which are from the British Library's own collection - a selection that is impressive but not overpowering.

These maps were made for many reasons, but are often about the ownership of space. In 1618, Duke Philip II of Pomerania, a territory
on the north coast of Europe, commissioned a fine map of his land to highlight its beauty, power and importance. The intention was to warn off potential invaders. It didn't work and Pomerania was consumed by Germany and Sweden after the Thirty Years War. Similarly, a French map of 1704 anticipates Louis XIV's forthcoming annexation of Savoy, while a map created by Rudolf Koch for the German schoolroom in 1935 featured a greater Germany that included parts of Austria, France, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Mussolini, surprisingly, complained. Hitler, even more surprisingly, backed down and withdrew the offending map, even if he didn't shelve his plans for expansion and subjugation.

Here are maps that depict the UK as an octopus; maps that demonstrate God was an Englishman; maps that represent the first American view of America; maps that celebrate the benevolence of the tsar; and maps that show Portugal has a preordained right to rule the world. More recent exhibits include Grayson Perry's figurative 2008 Map of Nowhere and Stephen Walter's outstanding reimagining of London as The Island.

Some make their point with subtlety. Abraham Ortelius published a fine world map in Antwerp in 1564 that features, in one corner, a list of unusual and valuable items and where these can be found on the globe. The whole thing could be read as an expression of the target audience's learning, or it could be seen as an index for colonisation.

More brazen are the two Tudor globes by Emery Molyneux. These were presented by William Sanderson, a merchant, to Elizabeth I. On one, the queen's arms are prominently placed over the fertile territory of North America, believed to be an indication by Sanderson, who financed voyages by Walter Raleigh, that the queen should proceed with the colonisation of the New World, something that would benefit him financially. If only today's corporate lobbyists would leave behind such artistic and scientific marvels.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope