Plotting maps and mapping minds: what can maps tell us about the people who made them

Teaching History article

By Evelyn Sweerts, Marie-Claire Cavanagh, published 31st August 2004

As historians, we know that ‘factual’ information should never be uncritically accepted. And yet, too often, that is exactly what we do with the maps we use to locate ourselves and our students. Evelyn Sweerts and Marie-Claire Cavanagh, who now work in a European School in Brussels but until recently worked in English schools, have proposed a series of lessons across the 11-14 age range designed to get students thinking about maps as sources of evidence. Maps need (and too often do not get) the careful handling we give to any other source. This lends itself magnificently to a cross-curricular approach. Maps made in the past, such as the medieval Mappa Mundi, can be infinitely revealing. They can tell historians about the extent of the ‘known’ world at different times, and people’s attitudes to the known and unknown – their concept of the familiar ‘self’ and the alien ‘other’. The maps used in geography today offer different ideas about the way the world is. The familiar Mercator projection is a useful navigational aid but bears little resemblance to what the world actually ‘looks’ like; the alternative Peters projection, which is based on land area, is profoundly unsettling. Historians seeking to learn about the past and geographers examining the present can benefit from approaching their maps in similar ways; Sweerts and Cavanagh suggest a geography lesson which could provide a perfect way in for history students unsure about the kinds of questions to ask of a map. Like any source, a map of a place tells us as much about the prejudices, level of knowledge and priorities of the people who wrote it as it does about the place itself. Geographers can therefore examine the most appropriate ways to represent our own world today. For historians, the consequences are also clear. Maps enable us to track the changing world-view - in every sense - of people in the past.

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