Blog Post

What Maps Really Show

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I often find myself thinking that maps are experiencing a resurgence.

But to be fair, that’s an exaggeration, because mapping has never been out of style. World maps have been around since 6000 BC (some would argue even earlier). So while the human fascination with maps hasn’t changed, what has shifted through the ages are the intentions behind the maps we make. Flip through successions of old atlases and you’ll notice immediately how names, boundaries, and borders of countries change and adjust in response to “discoveries” and world events. This makes sense: historically, maps have been tools for recording and delineating the world. They provided tangible and necessary information--here's the name of this place, this is what this region looks like, that's the border of this state, this is how you get to this area.

Fast forward to 2015, and the word “map” doesn’t even immediately imply the medium of paper. As visualizations like Eric Fischer’s Locals and Tourists and the Guardian’s realtime aviation map show, nowadays mapmakers have interests apart from navigation, location, and delineation. These maps aren’t examples of looking outwards—rather, they’re examinations of the inner lives of geographical spaces. We’re interested in features and specificity. We want to learn more about ourselves, we want to see our cities differently. When we render cartographic reflections, we want the privilege of new perspectives and the luxury of different points of view, and that's visible in the digital maps crafted today.

But maps have always carried a history and weight to them. They’ve always had assumptions and baggage implicitly coded into them, and lately I've been thinking about how important it is to critically consider this fact.

A windy day in Brighton. (Photo credit to Chi Anunwa)

What prompted this train of thought for me was a recent trip I made to Brighton, a seaside town located about an hour south of London. Brighton makes for a great day trip, with its cozy streets and beachy pier offering a welcome contrast to London’s cobblestone palette of grey and brown. In addition to quaint pastel-colored flats and a long, pebbly beach, Brighton also is home to a store called Colin Page Antiquarian Books. That store, which carries a variety of old books, maps, and atlases, was one of the major destinations of my trip. My main interest was in the historical maps of London: I wanted to see the ways that the city and its boundaries have been represented over the years.

But I ended up doing more than just that--instead, I found myself poring over an old atlas. The atlas was dated back to 1858, and at first, all I could focus on was how surreal it was to casually flip through such an old tome. But then I started to look closer at the pages and to notice more about the content of the book. For instance, I saw that some of the names of states within the map of Mexico were misspelled. And while the maps of the UK and Europe were beautiful and detailed, the entire continent of Africa was filled in only around the edges, with the center of the land mass left mostly blank.

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I suppose that none of this should have been surprising to me. Maps are products of the people who make them, and the Brits who made the atlas I was looking at had yet to properly explore the middle of the continent of Africa at the time of its creation. But even still, recorded in a thick book and preserved by time, the maps all carried an authority that masked the perspectives of their makers.

And that’s the thing about maps: they project an illusion of objectivity. The very nature of recording a land and detailing its features and cities seems to do the work of making it real: it feels like because it's written down, it must be true. You could argue that documentation doesn't necessarily create realities, but at the same time, there's evidence that shows that it can play a crucial role. After all, the historical boundaries solidified in the 1913 Berlin conference, the meeting where European powers divided up Africa, still largely live on to this day. And though to Africans living in the continent, the land shown in the atlas I looked at was obviously not uncharted territory, it still lives on in those maps as just that.

To me, this culminates in a particular challenge. It's one that I think is shared by all cartographers, journalists, and storytellers (whether we like it or not): we are charged with the task of creating maps that represent other people's real-life stories, knowing the weight that they carry. The stories and visualizations we create have the potential to hold a substantial amount of power in terms of defining a narrative for those people. How do we create things that are explorations, not set-in-stone declarations that mask our own perspectives and roles in their creation? I'm interested in discussing this question, so if you have your own thoughts on it, please reach out to me on Twitter or in the comments below.

Mimi Onuoha is a current Fulbright-National Geographic fellow, working on a project that consists of mapping the relationships of various Londoners as they unfold across online and offline space. Find her on Twitter and at her personal website.

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