Maps as Storytelling

From the Curator’s Desk

Greetings, friends:

I’ve written about this before, that I love maps. I didn’t necessarily love geography in school — I had an  altercation with my geography teacher in Form 1 and our relationship never really recovered. But I love maps. A huge part of my childhood was spent with my beloved Phillips E.A.E.P. Atlas, poring over countries, cities, borders and time zones. I can tell you, off the top of my mind, that the capital of Azerbaijan is Baku, and that the country with the most time zones in the world is France (this is a fact, look it up!) I even still recall that those initials E.A.E.P. stand for East African Educational Publishers.

My current obsession is Twitter accounts such as Epic Maps (@Locati0ns) that curate everything from simple topographical maps to the more obscure, such as this one showing the birthplaces of the fastest runners in the 10,000m race (hint – it’s mostly concentrated in a small geographical area in Africa).

The way I see it, maps are a form of storytelling. One good example is the Mercator projection, which is the way most world maps have been drawn for many centuries, and which I’m sure you’re familiar with even though you might not know it by that name. It’s an attempt to fit the Earth, which is a sphere*, onto a two-dimensional flat surface. The result is that countries closer to the North and South poles are distorted — they appear much larger than their true size.

This isn’t just a random, benign quirk of cartography; it has real geopolitical and social implications. By inflating the size of Europe and North America on a map, the space they take up in the global public consciousness is exaggerated as well, or as one analyst put it — “One of the dangers of the Mercator map is that it can make enlarged countries seem unnaturally powerful and intimidating… they underpin the ongoing Anglo-Euro-American presumption that the world belongs to them, and pivots around these geo-cultural axes.” And the influence goes the other way around, too — maps influence how we see the world, and how we see the world shapes what we see when we look at a map.

I’ve been thinking about what maps as stories could mean for other kinds of storytellers — imagine, for example, an unorthodox collaboration between journalists and architects or city planners, where the built environment tells its own stories. In many instances we’ve already become dependent on the maps around us, especially those in digital formats like Google Maps for navigation. But getting from point A to B isn’t as straightforward as you think — there are many untold stories in that simple map.

In the meantime, here’s:

  • What We’re Reading:  In a World On Fire, What Do We Owe Each Other? by the phenomenal Nanjala Nyabola, who also happens to be a personal friend. She writes, “… being concerned about things beyond the boundaries of your life is a fundamental obligation of anyone who considers themself a citizen of the world… Information abstracted from context and truth is not news—it is “content,” and proper concern for the world cannot be built on content. We owe each other meaningful witness.” (!) This is the first of a series of six essays by Nyabola on The Nation, so look out for them.
  • What We’re Watching:  Beef, on Netflix, which starts out being a story about road rage but morphs into something much more layered and complex. 
  • What We’re Listening To: Everything that Just A Band is putting out now, starting with WATU. The band is back, or, perhaps — like Eddy Ashioya writes — they never left.

As always, 

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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