Detail from Red Carpet by Grayson Perry, 2017. Image credit: © Grayson Perry
Courtesy the artist, Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.

Talking Maps

Nick Millea, Map Librarian, introduces a new exhibition at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

Oxford University
Jul 19 · 5 min read

What do Oxford’s notorious Cutteslowe Walls, a Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Grayson Perry have in common? All are represented in the Bodleian’s latest exhibition, Talking Maps, which opened on 5 July and continues through to 8 March next year.

We feature a map produced in early 1935, just after the appearance of the two walls in Cutteslowe by Oxford’s City Engineer, J.F. Richardson. Walking routes and associated distances to bus stops and schools from either side of the walls have been added by hand, making clear the level of inconvenience imposed on those living in the eastern half of Cutteslowe.

Page from The Tibetan Book of the Dead showing a soul transmigrating, 18th–19th century. MS. Tibet c. 60 (R), fol. 67.
Image credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

For those whose life was drawing to a close in Tibet, there’s a Book of the Dead used by Tibetan holy men to guide the ailing on their journey from death to the afterlife — a text with accompanying images mapping out the hazards likely to be encountered en route.

And Grayson Perry presents his take on Brexit via his spectacular Red Carpet tapestry made in the style of an Afghan war rug. Showing a country dominated by London, identifying tax evading on the Isle of Man, food banks, and hipsters, this is a far from positive take on the state of the nation.

Red Carpet by Grayson Perry, 2017. Image credit: © Grayson Perry
Courtesy the artist, Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.

Drawing on the Bodleian’s collection of more than 1.5 million maps, this exhibition brings together an extraordinary selection of ancient, pre-modern and contemporary maps from a range of cultures and in a variety of formats as well as showcasing fascinating imaginary, fictional and war maps.

Every map tells a story. Talking Maps is a celebration of maps and what they tell us about the places they depict and the people that make and use them. Curated by Nick Millea, the Bodleian’s Map Librarian, and Jerry Brotton, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, Talking Maps is a celebration of the layers of stories, conversations and discussions that surround the creation and use of maps. It begins in medieval Alexandria and ends with today’s computer-generated maps showing the geographical content of Donald Trump’s tweets. Highlights on show include the Gough Map, the earliest surviving map showing Great Britain in a recognizable form, and the Selden Map, a late Ming map of the South China Sea. Map treasures from the Libraries’ collection are being shown alongside specially commissioned artwork in the form of a spectacular reimagination of King Roger II of Sicily’s lost silver disc, originally created in the twelfth century, but now brought to life here in Oxford via Madrid in 2019.

The Gough map of Great Britain. Image credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Other rare treasures include a unique map of the Mediterranean from the eleventh-century Arabic Book of Curiosities, al-Sharīf al-Idrīsī’s twelfth-century world map, C.S. Lewis’s map of Narnia, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s cosmology of Middle-earth. Talking Maps highlights the different role of maps through the ages: they are not just created to find your way, but are also guides to the afterlife, windows into alternative worlds and tools that have been used to manage land, nations and empires.

Al Idrisi’s world map. Image credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

The theme for Talking Maps struck myself and Jerry as being a ready-made vehicle to transport us through a selection of maps which we felt compelled to share with those attending the exhibition, whilst at the same time permitting us to place some massively varied maps in conversation alongside cartography with which there was otherwise no apparent link. Thus we have been able to show maps produced on screen, skin, and sticks, or on paper, silver, and wool. We have endeavoured to explore how maps are neither transparent objects of scientific communication, nor tools of ideology, but proposals about the world that help people to understand who they are by describing where they are.

At 1pm on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the duration of Talking Maps, 30-minute gallery tours highlighting specific maps or themes are being offered to Weston Library visitors. A broad selection of guides have volunteered their time and expertise. No need to book, and these sessions are free of charge.

Talking Maps (£35), by Jerry Brotton and Nick Millea, is published by Bodleian Library Publishing. Other maps books being published to coincide with the exhibition include Fifty Maps and the Stories they Tell (£12) by Millea and Brotton and Why North is Up (£20, out in August) by Mick Ashworth. All three titles are available from www.bodleianshop.co.uk


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Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk

Oxford University

Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk

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