Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Maps with an Attitude

hcl committees  

A 1925 poster produced in China to support a boycott of British goods. The text reads, "Down with England," and shows a British concession and bandaged English lion being blown away. Harvard-Yenching Library. Da dao Yingguo


April 13, 2010 – Though they are often thought of as objective, scientific representations of the physical world, maps – even those created in the 20th century – are often anything but. Using techniques like color, perspective, imagery, symbolism and text, maps have long been used to advocate political and social positions, reinforce fears and generally encourage viewers to take sides.

A new exhibition, Maps with an Attitude: Cartographies of Propaganda and Persuasion, opening April 14 at the Harvard Map Collection, explores a variety of ways maps have been used to express points of view by allowing visitors to examine more than a dozen maps which framed the major conflicts of the 20th century, from World War I to the Bosnian War.

“When people think of the history of cartography, it is usually presented as a step-by-step progression, from less accurate maps to more accurate maps, or from less scientific to more scientific,” said Joseph Garver, Interim Co-Head and Reference Librarian at the Harvard Map Collection. “Maps have this aura of being accurate, or being ‘true,’ and because of that, artists and graphic designers can use maps to support a particular point of view. Maps are often used to persuade the public or to propagandize, and they can be very convincing.”

Related Links


  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Among the items that will be on display as part of the exhibition: a humorous pre-World War I map depicting the nations of Europe as individuals, with Russia holding a bottle of vodka and Germany stretching its arms for more space; a map, produced in 1914 Berlin, contrasting Germany’s relatively minor growth in population and land area as compared to England’s large growth; a World War I map produced in England portraying the armies surrounding Germany as a “Ring of Steel”; a World War II map, produced just after the start of the blitz in England, which portrays the number and site of every English bombing raid in Germany; a 1955 map, produced by Time magazine portraying communist China and the U.S.S.R. as a red-hued landmass, looming menacingly over Japan, South Korea and U.S.-controlled Formosa; and a map which portrays Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995, ringed by Serb tanks and rocket launchers.

Maps with an Attitude: Cartographies of Propaganda and Persuasion will be on display in the Harvard Map Collection in Pusey Library through August 14. Hours, Directions