National Maritime Museum to publish lavish new book revealing the powerful human stories behind its important map collection
On Thursday 19 May 2022, the National Maritime Museum is publishing A is for Atlas: Wonders of Maps and Mapping, a highly illustrated celebration of cartography from the thirteenth century to today.
Maps can be so much more than how to get from A to B. The map collection at the National Maritime Museum comprises approximately 40,000 maps, charts, globes and atlases. A is for Atlas is a compendium of rare, valuable and intriguing objects from the collection, including a sixteenth-century map of the world replacing the face of a jester, a nineteenth-century inflatable globe and a twentieth-century waterproof map that saved lives during the Second World War.
Spanning eight centuries, A is for Atlas reveals the myriad ways humanity has sought to record the world around us and the skies above. The book prompts readers to look at the world through different perspectives, such as a 1567 map of the world where the northern hemisphere is at the bottom. In addition to maps of countries and continents, celestial globes try to unlock the secrets of the stars and the features of the Moon are recorded in ever more minute detail as scientists and astronomers learnt more and arranged data in innovative ways.
The oldest object in the book is a manuscript map of Mesopotamia by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Farisi al-Istakhri, dated before 1282. It reveals part of a textual tradition of geographical manuscripts that lasted for almost a millennium. Mountain ranges are illustrated in a deep red with floral and geometric patterns, while the rivers Tigris and Euphrates flow across the page in a majestic blue.
The most recent object is a football globe made for Mark Wallinger’s First World War centenary artwork, One World by Mark Wallinger. This 2018 football is a photographic representation of the Earth as seen from satellite imagery. This globe was commissioned to mark the centenary of the First World War, commemorating the ‘Christmas Day ceasefires’ that took place on the Western Front in 1914.
Rather than approach the collection chronologically, A is for Atlas draws on the collection in twenty-six themes, including ‘commemoration’, ‘manuscript’, ‘sea monsters’ and ‘treasure’. Its global outlook encourages the reader to think differently about what a map can be and do. A small digital graphic that circulated on WhatsApp in 2015 showing Arabic-speaking refugees ‘The Road to Germany’ sits beside an abandoned eighteenth-century attempt to straighten the Thames. A stick chart made in the Marshall Islands, a tool used by Marshallese seafarers for thousands of years to learn the patterns of the ocean in order to navigate between islands, is displayed alongside a nineteenth-century nautical globe, revealing how different cultures have used maps as a learning aid.
A is for Atlas showcases objects which, due to their fragile nature, cannot be placed on long-term display for the public. This book is therefore an excellent resource for accessing and exploring the National Maritime Museum's map collection.
The book also shows the results of an investigation into a nineteenth-century globe. An endoscope was fed through a hole in a Newton & Son terrestrial table globe from 1842, offering Dr Barford an unusual view – the inside of a globe. The investigation revealed proof pages from various books of the Bible lining the inside and supporting the papier-mâché hemispheres.
A new acquisition also makes its debut appearance in A is for Atlas. In 2021, the National Maritime Museum acquired Liquid Traces: The Left to Die Boat Case, a video made by Forensic Oceanography researchers Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller. It shows the route of a small boat that was carrying seventy-two people away from Libya in 2011. It was left adrift for fourteen days and sixty-three passengers died. This map interrogates the policies and practices of migrant vessels in distress in overlapping jurisdictions being abandoned. Maps often show the limits of national borders but can also reveal how these lines are contested and the consequences of their imposition.
About the Author
Dr Megan Barford is Curator of Cartography at Royal Museums Greenwich. Their research has focused on nineteenth-century British Admiralty charts, charting and navigation, and twentieth-century map collecting. In 2017, they received an Art Fund New Collecting Award to build a collection of contemporary cartography concerned with forced migration.
Publication Date: Thursday 19 May 2022
Format: 250 x 225 mm
Extent: 256 pp.
Images: Over 150 colour images
Notes to editors:
The National Maritime Museum holds the world’s largest maritime collection. It is part of Royal Museums Greenwich which also incorporates the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the 17th-century Queen’s House and clipper ship Cutty Sark. This unique collection of museums and heritage buildings, which form a key part of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site, welcomes visitors from around the world every year and is a major centre of education and research. The mission of Royal Museums Greenwich is to enrich people’s understanding of the sea, the exploration of space, and Britain's role in world history. For more information visit www.rmg.co.uk.
For further information or images, please contact:
Victoria Mottram, Royal Museums Greenwich Press Office
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