I just completed my first exhibition review recently, for SHARP News. At least, I think I did; I haven’t yet heard back from the editor, and I expect that there are some changes that need to be made.

At any rate, part of my homework was to read a lot of exhibition reviews so that I could get a sense of the genre. This one, from the London Review of Books, seems especially good, of “Magnificent Maps” at the British Library till 19 September:

Land is a constant theme, its ownership and boundaries set out on estate maps, its borders on national maps, its broadest extent on world maps that point to or follow imperial expansion. The very earliest maps, however, try for something less mundane. The medieval mappa mundi tied ancient history, theology and fanciful anthropology to a diagrammatic and symbolic geography. Of all the maps here these are the ones that seem to expect to be read line by line. This is the world and its history from the Garden of Eden onwards, an illustrated encyclopedia. Grayson Perry’s large etching called Map of Nowhere, a map of ‘the beliefs, headlines, clichés and monsters that populate my social landscape’, is based on the Ebstorf Map of 1300. (There is a photographic reconstruction here: the original was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943.) Perry himself takes the part of the Ebstorf Christ whose head and feet stick out, as though from under a great round bedspread. ‘This piece,’ Perry says, ‘reflects my concerns at the time, late 2007-early 2008, about everything from class and turbo-consumerism to green politics and intellectual snobbery.’ You can’t just look at it; you must read it too.

Paintings and illustrated books usually have an optimum viewing distance; you may peer at details but most of the time you choose a position that takes in the whole. With maps it is different. Walking round the British Library galleries you are forever moving in and out, scanning the whole and reading the detail. When you are reading the smallest lettering you are made aware both of how much there is that you are not attending to, and how it relates to the whole map. The GPS satellites that wrap the globe in space-defining signals have led to the development of maps that move along with you and tell you only what you need to know to get where you are going. Maps shown on the television news zoom in from a global view to the exact spot where the latest suicide bomber struck, but show little else. The map you see on the cabin screen on a long-distance flight shows direction, distance, speed and height, but only the most rudimentary geography. The maps in the exhibition from a less accurate but richer cartographic culture hint at what we may be losing.

I think the art of reviewing is fascinating and neglected. I love reading good reviews probably more than any other kind of academic writing. I might make an exception for good histories.

(I hope to post another example, this one from none other than Mark Pattison, later today.)