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From local disputes to a world map on a silver disk, discover the (hidden) stories maps have to tell!

November 15, 2019

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From local disputes to a world map on a silver disk, discover the (hidden) stories maps have to tell!

November 15, 2019

I visited the Talking Maps exhibition and had a chat with one of the curators Nick Millea (Bodleian Map Librarian). He showed me around, shared the amazing stories the maps have to tell, and gave some details on the lightshow that is planned for the festival.  


The exhibition features a section dedicated to maps of our own Oxford. As the title of the collection suggests, they all have a different story to tell. For example, there is a map that is deliberately false. The map is from 1644, during the English Civil War. The map was probably created with as goal to confuse the enemy. With great care for detail, as the map is basically a copy of a correct map, but scrambled up. Other maps show plans for Oxford that never got executed, every place in Oxford where you could legally get a drink (in 1883), and a map that shows the Cutteslowe walls. 

The Cutteslowe walls, which were about two metres high with spikes on top, were built by people living in private houses. They didn’t like the people living in the City Council’s Cutteslowe estate passing through. The map shows, how those people now had to travel all the way around to get to Banbury Road. When the City Council took the walls down, they were sued. They lost and had to rebuild the walls. It wasn’t until 1959, that the City Council managed to buy the land and knock down the walls. 


The exhibition doesn’t just show local maps. There is a book that contains maps, originally created in 1154. The king of Sicily, Roger II, wanted to show his multi-culturalism and asked for a book to be made that describes the world. The Arab al-Idrīsī made the book, including 70 regional maps showing different parts of the world. The people from the Bodleian thought it would be great if the maps could be joined together. The Factum Foundation did this for them and also reimagined the silver disk the full map was originally on. 


With the technological possibilities we have today, the use and creation of maps is completely different from what it used to be. A great example, are the “cartograms” that can be seen on touchscreens present at the exhibition. Cartograms are maps of the world, but each country has a different size depending on a statistical value. There are about 450 maps that can be selected. Examples are countries with the most English or Arabic speakers, the most rainfall throughout the year, and... countries Trump tweeted about the most. 

Cartogram showing number of times @RealDonaldTrump mentions specific countries (USA not included but map includes Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory of the USA).* Credit: Worldmapper


Last year's light show is still visible at the exhibition. Of course, it looks way more impressive during a Luxmuralis projection, but it is still captivating to see. The Bodleian Library’s collection exists out of 1.5 million maps, of which a selection is available in the book Talking Maps. Luxmuralis took scans of the maps from this selection and manipulated them into a mesmerising projection to music surrounding its viewers. They changed the colours and flipped the images, but they also kept some of the pictures true to its sources.

This year, we can expect another incredible experience with big, moving images and music. In the Old Schools Quadrangle, you’ll be able to see a show similar to the one from last year. The one on Radcliffe Camera will be with all new material creating a pathway between the main Illuminating Oxford pieces.  


If you are interested in maps, you should definitely visit the free exhibition at the Weston Library. Discover how maps have stories to tell beyond finding your way and knowing where you are. The exhibition is open till the 8th of March and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1:00 PM there is a pop-up talk with a guest speaker explaining a handful of maps in great detail!  


More info:  

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Oxford's Christmas Light Festival is brought to you by:

Oxford City Council, St. Aldates Chambers, Oxford OX1 1DS

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