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The Power of Maps - Part Three

Published 7th May 2015 by The Times Atlas  


An important aspect of the power of cartography is the ability to determine what is left off the map as well as what is included. The cartographic historian Brian Harley has noted how the poor and marginalized in society have been ignored while the rich and powerful, the aristocracy and the church in early modern Europe, were well represented. As Harley noted, silences ‘reveal as much as they conceal … silence and utterance are not alternatives but constituent parts of map language’. Harley notes the irony of the exclusion of Native Americans from early maps of English colonies in North America – maps which they undoubtedly helped to make. Silences remained a feature of modern cartography, with informal settlements often being deliberately excluded from official maps, the classic example being the invisibility of African townships such as Soweto on official maps from the Apartheid era.

Silences in the early modern era also involved commercial sensitivity as marine charts became important tools of global trade and dominion. Royal charters prohibited certain information from being shown or ensured that certain information was ‘cleansed’ from charts. Silences have been used for strategic reasons too. Key military complexes have often been removed from maps during periods of conflict. Blank spaces appeared on British Ordnance Survey maps during the Second World War where dockyards existed, and more recently, sensitive sites were removed from maps during the Cold War.


Governments are often sensitive about their defence estate and related facilities. In this pair of maps, the Ordnance Survey, the UK’s mapping agency, included the Burghfield Place Royal Ordnance Factory (now an Atomic Weapons establishment) on the 1974 edition (top) of its standard 1:50 000 map (although it had been omitted on earlier versions), but chose to omit it from the 1984 version (bottom).

The advent of universally available satellite imagery and worldwide ‘democratic’ mapping applications, has meant that such map ‘silences’ have become less and less effective.



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