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Telling stories with maps

Maps tell us more than how to get to the nearest restaurant or train station. For generations, maps have offered insights into different cultures, attitudes and fears, providing a greater understanding of the world around us – and also of the past.

For the third in our three-part series on the history of maps, we spoke with Jerry Brotton, historian and author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps, about his work, his upcoming projects, and the stories maps can tell us.

“I started out studying English, but would often take topics on the side, with cartography being one of these. It grabbed me because in the late 1980s, geography was going through a revolution where political theory and discourse had hit the discipline and suddenly the notion of maps being neutral and rational objects started to shift.

“I feel like literary studies had already gone through that revolution, and that’s why I turned to mapping.”

Jerry continued his studies, completing an MA and his PhD, which focused on the history of cartography. Jerry tells us more about his burgeoning career in the study of map making:

“My first book was Trading Territories, which discussed maps as mediators for cultural exchange – in particular, for exchanges between Europe and the Islamic world. I looked at how maps disclosed a story about this exchange that many other mediums, like literature, could not.”

After Trading Territories was published, Jerry continued to be fascinated in maps and started work on, arguably, his best-known books: A History of the World in Twelve Maps.

A History of the World in Twelve Maps was me telling a bigger, global history of mapping. The book spoke to both the academic audience and beyond, and seemed to illustrate a hunger and interest from a broader audience to try and understand the history of maps, how they’ve evolved over time, and the emergence of online and digital mapping.”

The book – which explores the likes of Ptolemy’s Geography and the Hereford Mappa Mundi – discusses how these maps were shaped by different societies and the fears and beliefs of the time.


This richness of narrative can still be seen in today’s digital maps, according to Jerry:

“Maps still tell stories, just in different ways. Many old maps, like mappae mundi, are about time as well as space, and look to capture temporality. Current digital technologies are capable of achieving something that paper cannot: streaming time on the map.

“You can go in and stream video. For example, you could click on Cairo and be linked to a video of protests taking place.”

This, though, has had a ripple effect on cartography, and how it is now perceived.

“The data used to create maps is changing the way they are viewed,” says Jerry, “with digital mappers often only referring to their work as ‘applications’, rather than ‘maps’. The map is becoming so downloadable and flexible that it’s pushing the limits of how it can actually be defined.”

Talk of how technology has affected maps leads us to a discussion of Jerry’s ongoing projects, including his latest work in partnership with close friend Adam Lowe, head of Factum Arte, an artist workshop that works on conversation and 3D art projects.

“I’ve worked with Adam for many years because he’s fascinated by the theory and practice of mapping. Now, we’re working on a facsimile of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, using cutting edge data capture and 3D scanning techniques to learn more about old maps. The work will be exhibited later this year at the cathedral alongside work from other artists, including Grayson Perry.”


Visualisation of the world without water project Visualisation of the world without water project


Jerry is also working with Adam and Factum Arte on Terra Forming, a series of 3D projections of the Earth without water.

“We use digital data of the ocean’s floor to create a completely different visualization, casting it in different materials to create the relief. We wanted to show the surface of the earth without water and then flood it, first indicating sea levels and then a drowned world. This offers a powerful environmental image, and allows people to engage with the world around them in a different way, while seeing the pleasures and pains of globalisation.

“It also does what I think maps have always done – represent a perfect synthesis of art and science.”

Other projects for Jerry include a partnership with the Bodleian Library. “We’re jointly curating a project to talk maps and what kind of stories they tell. Maps, in earlier periods, were referred to as ‘plots’, because they share some of the same terms with the structure of a narrative.


Detail of 3D world map without water Detail of 3D world map without water


“We’re interested in the stories that maps tell, and we’ll be exhibiting a series of key maps and weaving stories around them. We want to show that there is and always will be a close link between maps and narrative.”

The first part of the series, on how to read the world’s oldest map, can be found here, while the second, a look at the history of mappa mundi, can be found here.

Have you read A History of the World in Twelve Maps, or any of Jerry’s other works? Let us know what you think.

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