On 1st March, I was lucky enough to attend the final day of the British Library’s ‘Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line’ exhibition. The following day, I was even luckier to interview Magdalena Peszko, one of the British Library’s map curators, about the exhibition itself. As my budding exhibition on Victorian soil enters a terminal phase, with key decisions still to be made on the dominant themes, the narrative structure and, most crucially of all, the exact content, the opportunity to speak at length with a professional was immensely valuable. This post outlines her thoughts, focusing on those pertinent to my own project, and will hopefully be relevant to other budding curators as well!

After deciding on a subject, a question any curator must consider is, what to actually include in their exhibition? With over 4.5 million maps in their collection, curators at the British Library had an enormous task to select only 200 for the exhibition. This is actually still a rather large number and my digital exhibition on Victorian soil will consist of only around 40 exhibits. The question, then, is often one of exclusion rather than inclusion. With such a wealth of potential material for inclusion, having a clear narrative structure in mind when selecting material to explore a particular topic is crucial.

The inclusion/exclusion question, therefore, is closely accompanied by a question of narrative. What story/stories does the curator want to tell in the exhibition? And, what story/stories does the material lend itself to telling? The ‘Maps and the 20th Century’ exhibition was divided up into five sections: Mapping a New World; Mapping War; Mapping Peace?; Mapping the Market; Mapping Movement. The temptation, perhaps, when selecting maps spanning the whole of the twentieth century, might have been to arrange the material chronologically. Refining the maps into complimentary themes in different spacial zones, however, achieved a far subtler interplay between the items on display. The resulting exhibition invited the viewer to make their own comparisons and draw their own conclusions, while at the same time being guided by overarching narratives which sought to illuminate the importance and prevalence of maps through the period.

Of course, this is a delicate balance. The curator does not want to tell the viewer exactly what to think, but then an element of guidance is indispensable. The first section, entitled ‘Mapping a New World’, included several contrasting cartographical representations of similar source material, implicitly asking the viewer to begin thinking critically by comparing and contrasting. One striking example showed a map of Britain from Dr Beeching’s 1963 report on the future of British rail travel, with his intended line closures starkly highlighted in red. Alongside was another map, this one advertising the available routes run by a British rail operator, including perspective detailing of trains heading from the city to the seaside and images of smiling children and popular landmarks. Maps, the juxtaposition suggests, are not as objective as we might first suppose. Indeed, various economic, political, and social considerations inevitably impact on their creation.

It would have been easy to write this information explicitly in the explicatory text accompanying each exhibit. In order to encourage the visitor to the exhibition to think critically, however, a balance needs to be struck between what is conveyed directly in writing and what is implied and suggested through careful structuring. The explicatory summaries of individual exhibits are hugely important, and the British Library curators worked to a strict rule of no more than 90 words to each exhibit. That’s the same number as this paragraph up to now. Not much then, to explain the individual subtleties of cartographical representation through 200 twentieth century maps, or, indeed, to convey the nuanced Victorian representations and understandings of soil across 40 digital exhibits.

Yet, imposing such limits is vital so as to maintain the viewer’s interest. This is of paramount importance to the success of any exhibition. Cartography is, I think, a wonderfully engaging subject. People like maps. Even so, the curators worked on a strict 13 second rule for gauging a prospective visitor’s attention span. Having only 13 seconds to capture and hold somebody’s attention on a single exhibit might at first seems a rather daunting prospect. It certainly makes the narrative structure of the exhibition all the more important. Considering other ways to convey information and guide the viewer’s attention (the BL exhibition included a map on the floor which doubled as a graphic to help navigate the space and reflect the items on display) can in fact be approached as a fantastic opportunity for creative design.

The problem of holding the viewer’s attention is exacerbated when we shift our focus from the material exhibition space to an exhibition in the digital medium. The windowed interface of the internet ensures that instant gratification in the form of more engaging material is only ever a click away. The digital medium, however, also provides incredible opportunities for the exhibition curator. Digital images can be made fully zoomable and can be of such high resolution as to actually show information undetectable with the naked eye. Tagging images and content also provides an additional level of access, allowing exhibits which might fall into more than one thematic category to be linked accordingly. There is, therefore, a multiplicity of opportunities for the user navigating the digital exhibition, whereas the material exhibition generally fosters a linear experience broadly similar for each viewer.

My final question for Magdalena was if she had any indispensable advice for the budding curator. The narrative, she said, is all important. Work out what you are representing, how much material you are including, and what key themes that material falls into – and stick to it. Be bold and ask questions of the viewer with creative links and challenging exhibits. Explain the material, but leave some questions open so as to intrigue the viewer, hopefully sparking research of their own. Embrace the many possibilities of the digital, tagging related material and linking interesting exhibits together in interesting ways

And, finally, always remember the 13 second rule!