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'Pattern of the World', tea and coffee stains on dressmaking pattern papers, Susan Stockwell, 2000. Museum no. E.1095-2000

'Pattern of the World', tea and coffee stains on dressmaking pattern papers, Susan Stockwell, 2000. Museum no. E.1095-2000

Maps are simplified schematic diagrams that employ a universal visual language through which we codify and comprehend our world. We all use maps in our daily lives as sources of information about places, routes, networks and boundaries. They offer us the means of describing and understanding the intangible too: everything from air routes and constellations to states of mind.

Although mapping is a method of gathering, ordering and recording knowledge, all maps are to some extent the products of imagination. No map is ever the truly objective description of a place that it purports to be. Every map is shaped – and coloured – by political, cultural and social conditions, and by the personal experience or imaginative projections of its maker. Maps can be enhanced by imaginative embellishments, they can show imaginary places, and artists can adapt map iconography to express their ideas and experiences of place.


Maps are invitations to travel. As well as constituting a record of a place, maps are designed as aids or guides for those undertaking journeys. We all use maps in our daily lives, for driving, travelling on public transport, taking a walk or going on holiday. We use maps to plan a route, or tell us something about the place we are heading for; reading a map we can identify landmarks, and establish the distance between one place and another.

The lay of the land

Most maps have been devised with the purpose of recording or explaining a particular landscape. They range from estate maps recording individual land ownership to the street plans of towns and cities, to national enterprises such the Ordnance Survey which mapped the whole of the British Isles. The earliest maps combined a diagrammatic layout or a bird's-eye view with pictures representing significant landmarks. Now all such maps employ standardised pictograms or graphic symbols to represent landscape features, boundaries, notable sites, and aspects of land use.

Politics of place

The most familiar and commonly-accepted world map, the Mercator projection (named for one of its earliest exponents, Gerard Mercator), has changed little since the 16th century. However it has been criticised for supposedly giving too great an emphasis to Europe and as representing a colonialist world view. In 1973 Arno Peters popularised a revised projection which showed the true sizes of the continents relative to one another (though at the cost of distorting their actual shapes). Maps can be designed to serve the purposes of propaganda, and they have been exploited in various ways as commentaries on the politics of empire, or to address the impact of social conditions and environmental issues.


The iconic image of London is not a building or a view but a map. Harry Beck's map of the London Underground Railway network, a masterpiece of elegant functionality and diagrammatic clarity has remained fundamentally unchanged since 1933. This map has been parodied, imitated and appropriated because it is instantly recognisable. The central essential feature, the backbone, of Beck's map and of every other map of London is the distinctive blue line of the River Thames. Even a map reduced to the line of the river alone remains readily identifiable as London.


Every map embodies a story - the story of how, where and why it was devised, and what it represents, but a map also lends itself readily to story-telling. There is an inherent narrative aspect to any graphic work designed to represent a place, assert ownership, describe a route, record a journey, or chart newly explored places. Works of fiction, and children's books in particular, have often used maps to set the scene for their readers. In some cultures myths and histories have been recorded visually using graphic elements such as patterns and diagrams which read like maps.

States of mind

New medical technologies have given us views of the body and the brain which present neurological activity as a map-like image, but in the past the graphic language of maps has often been used to describe emotions and other intangible experiences. Sometimes artists have used strategies such as automatism or meditation to access and to map the visions of their own unconscious mind. In other instances maps of real places may be invoked to represent imaginary journeys or fantastical lands.

This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Mapping the Imagination', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 3 October 2007 – 27 April 2008.,

Recommended reading

Alfrey, Nicholas and Stephen Daniels, eds. Mapping the landscape: essays on art and cartography Nottingham: University Art Gallery: Castle Museum, 1990

England, Jane, The map is not the territory. Part 1. 2001 England & Co., London (exhibition catalogue)

England, Jane, The map is not the territory. Part 2. 2002 England & Co., London (exhibition catalogue)

Harmon, Katharine, You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2004

ROAM: Reader on the aesthetics of mobility London; New York: Black Dog Publishing, 2003

Storr, Robert, Mapping New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994

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