The Role and Function of Maps

We often expect maps to be objective sources of information with single functions. But look closely at the maps in this resource and see if they serve more than one purpose? Do they carry hidden messages or do they inadvertently reveal some unexpected information about their makers or the world at the time?

Looking at the maps on the site, note the choice of style, the format and the mapmakers’ ideologies. To test your observations of how maps can create different images of the same world, try to make your own maps and see what they might say about you and your view of the world.

Minimalist Maps

Create a map that includes as little information as possible but still enables someone to get from 'a' to 'b'. Ask others to test your map. Does it work? Does it serve more than its purpose? Does its simplicity affect the way you think and feel about the journey or route? To further test your findings, you can create an alternative map that includes all the minute details along the route. Compare the two. Would you choose to create a 'tidy' map, or would you include all the 'clutter'?

You can also compare early versions of the London Tube Map with the current version created by Harry Beck in 1933. Look these maps up on Google. Which map is most true to position, location and distance? Which map best serves its purpose?

To extend the activity and discussion, consider the possible roles of a tidy or clean map? In turn, what may be the purpose of filling a map with obsessive detail or extraneous decoration? Look at the map of the Fictitious Southern Continent, the map of the moon, the map of the Garden of Eden, and Ptolemy's World Map. List all the decorative details found on these maps. What purpose do these details serve? Compare the Plan of Hampstead Garden Suburb (1905) with that of O'Connerville Chartist Utopia and discuss what kind of worlds they present?

Monumental Maps or Maps of Honour:

Make a map that pays tribute to a particular event, accomplishment or invention. Include different registers of language, symbols and images. Think about how you can make the shape and style of the map relate to what it is commemorating. How do you give your subject status? Show your map to the rest of the group and see if other's can guess who, or what, it is that your map is honouring.

Survey Maps

What is the purpose of a map that shows the income of every single citizen, the location of schools or the areas where most traffic accidents occur? Create a survey map of your bedroom by dividing different areas into zones according to their importance, content and use. Think about how you want the map to function, and use colours and symbols to mark different points. Include a 'key' so that others will be able to read your map. What do you want them to be able to see and find? What do you want to hide? Let others read your map and see if it -- besides the geographical position of things -- reveals some unexpected information about you, your interests or your priorities, that you didn't intend it to? The following maps might be helpful for this exercise: Booth's London Poverty Map, Insurance Plan of City of London (1886), German Bombing Map of Manchester (1941), Zone Map of Dresden (1943)

Propaganda Maps

Create a map that promotes your local area, and make it as attractive as possible. Discuss the truth of your maps? Who will they attract? Can they be used politically to show the potential of your neighbourhood and convince others to move there, to make changes or to invest in new and better facilities?

The following maps might be helpful for this exercise: The Plan of Wellington (1840), Plan of Robert Langford's estate (c1770), Routes from London to Luton Hoo (1767)

Beauty, Truth and Deception

All maps are interesting and most maps are beautiful. However, some map makers seem to have made an immense effort to make their maps as beautiful as possible. Why might this be? Consider the value of skill, time and beauty itself. If you own something beautiful, what does this say about you? Would you consider it a tribute if someone didn't take time or care in painting your portrait? Beauty can afford value and status, but can beauty also be deceptive? The following maps might be helpful for this exercise: Map of Paradise (1690), Map of Barbados (1675), Map of the British Isles (1558)]

Create a map of a dreamt of place or a map of yourself. Mark on the map the things you own, the places you go, the things you do, your family and friends. Make it as beautiful as you possibly can: include signs, symbols, language and consider how images may help to 'tell' your story or make it appear more real. Allow others to interpret your story. Do they believe your map? Does beauty make it appear more or less convincing?