Maps Tell us Stories, not Facts


Historians use historical maps for several purposes:  as useful tools for reconstructing the past, to the extent that maps provide records of features, landscapes, cities and places that may not exist anymore or that exist in dramatically transformed form; and as a representation of the “worldview” of the mapmaking culture, and how that culture saw its place (literally and metaphorically) in the world at the time the map was made.

Maps are narratives that tell a story of the time and people of their origin, even the modern Google Earth is a product of subjective choices of visual signs and symbols of our time.  These seemingly objective maps, like any other, involve selections of information, human editing, and a visual language legible to the current end user.

Why do maps always show the north as up? For those who don’t just take it for granted, the common answer is that Europeans made the maps and they wanted to be on top. But there’s really no good reason for the north to claim top-notch cartographic real estate over any other bearing, as an examination of old maps from different places and periods can confirm.

Next time you are looking at the standard map of the world oriented to the north, consider the 20th century Upside-Down Map of the World published in New Zealand.  Tired of being put on maps “down under”, New Zealand and Australia are at the top and the effect is jarring;  our sense of orientation all depends on your point of view.

A popular example of a south-up oriented map designed as a political statement is “McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World” (1979). An insert on this map explains that the Australian, Stuart McArthur, sought to confront “the perpetual onslaught of ‘downunder’ jokes — implications from Northern nations that the height of a country’s prestige is determined by its equivalent spatial location on a conventional map of the world”.  McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World (1979) has sold over 350,000 copies to date.

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