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A tour of the British Library's Maps and the 20th Century exhibition

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line is the latest exhibition at the British Library in London, and although HERE has evolved beyond its cartographical roots, this exhibition is particularly close to our hearts. We went along to discover how mapping in the 20th Century has helped to shape the world we live in, along with shaping the location platforms and services HERE offers today.



The British Library has gathered together some of the most influential maps from the past century, and it’s great to see them all in one place. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the exhibition begins with a real-time digital map of the exhibition space on a large display, with heat patches around the venue highlighting areas populated by visitors. It may be a lot simpler than HERE venue mapping, but it helps to highlight similarities with HERE services, and it’s the first of plenty of parallels that crop up throughout the exhibition, stretching right back to maps from the beginning of the century.

A map of the globe called Target Berlin is one of the first maps in the exhibition, and highlights a common cartographical technique that’s still seen today in our apps. The map centres in on an area of interest - Berlin, in this case - but with our own apps and services we’ve taken that one step further and created a world that’s based around your specific location. It’s great to see that the technique was being offered on paper way back in 1943.

Paper maps aren’t the only things you can see at the exhibition, and there are plenty of other formats on display, from postcards to coins and globes. It was the inclusion of an early SimCity computer game from 1989 that really caught our eye, however, not least because of a town called Heresville, with a demo showing off the ability for players to create their own map for their very own town.

Moving through the exhibition, a map of Oxford, England, from 1960 shows a relief road through the city, designed to ease congestion. We saw plenty of people passing by without a second glance, but it’s easy to see parallels between early maps offering alternative routes and our own traffic updates.

Early route planning is also on display from decades ago, with a particular map, drawn on mulberry tissue, standing out. Created in 1943, the map highlights potential routes and detailed instructions for prisoners of war to make an escape from Colditz. The library notes it’s likely that Airey Neave, the first British officer to escape successfully from Colditz, used a version of the map to plot his escape. Imagine how much easier it’d be with our turn-by-turn navigation…

With HERE providing navigation and location services for almost every facet of everyday life, revolutionising transport, appearing on our smartphones and even on our watches, it’s difficult to imagine not having maps to hand whenever we need them, and the exhibition highlights the fact that people had to be a lot more creative in the past. A great example of this is a map of Belfast, Northern Ireland, which was especially cut to shape so it’d fit on a sniper rifle, before being laminated so it could be viewed in any conditions. A precursor to smartwatch maps?

Similarities between traditional maps from the 20th Century and HERE services can also be spotted in the Michelin Tyre Company battlefield tourist guide – a pocket book from 1919 telling tourists whatever they need to know about the areas around them. We’ve long offered comprehensive points of interest lists, including Michelin guides, in our HERE WeGo apps, and it’s great to see first hand where the inspiration came from.

The exhibition shows off plenty of maps used during wars throughout the century, but it also highlights maps being used to shape society during more peaceful times as well, including aerial photography during the 1950s for post-war planning and reconstruction. While our aerial photographs may be taken from satellites orbiting the planet rather than RAF planes, the end result is definitely similar.

Other interesting themes include the role that mapping played in economics over the century, with a map from 1930 showing trade routes, and a thematic map from 1966 showing personal income. There's even a rough draft of Harry Beck's London Underground map. In another precursor to our own indoor mapping, it’s interesting to see that Henry Ford got there first, distributing indoor tourist maps for Ford’s River Rauge factory back in 1940.

The exhibition is a fantastic way of discovering more about the way maps have impacted society, but beyond that it also highlights just how many of the features found in maps are still invaluable today in our location and navigation services. As the exhibition shows, we may have moved on from paper maps, but we’ll certainly never forget them.

Interested in checking out Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line? The exhibition is open until Wednesday 1st March 2017, and costs £12.00 for an adult ticket or free admission for British Library members.

Image credits: The British Library / National Geographic / Victoria & Albert Museum

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