The tube map could easily be the most viewed poster in London: nearly 3 million people travel by underground every day. Its purpose and design is straightforward, but Mind the Map at the London Transport Museum shows how it evolved from a much more decorative style. As the underground network became more and more complex, and expanded further out of London like some sort of electrically-powered spider’s web, newer tube maps strove to make elegant sense of its crisscrossing lines. This exhibition charts the tube map's evolution alongside art inspired by tube maps, older decorative maps, and vintage advertisements, and presents some interesting examples of the interaction between technical design and art.
The oldest maps of the underground on display bear a close relation to London's actual topography. Most of them consist of street maps with tube lines and stops marked on top in bold reds and blues. While there were only a few stops in the late nineteenth century, by the early twentieth century, tube maps had eight lines to contend with. A 1908 map shows a charmingly simple network by today's standards – but by then, the Northern and District lines had already begun to sprawl, and the underlying map of London streets is consequently pared down.
One of the most interesting pieces on display here is a 1928 tube map by Richard Park. This piece overlays a section of the tube network in red on top of a 1745 map of London by John Rocque. It’s provocative – almost like an act of graffiti – to deface such a historical map, but fascinating to trace modern London over much older streets. The buildings, the architecture, the infrastructure and transport networks have changed irrevocably in the city, but this map reminds us that the space the tube occupies is in fact the same space of these eighteenth-century streets; the present is literally layered over the past as the red lines of the tube connect old London both spatially and temporally to modern London.
The greatest change to the tube map was in 1931, when Henry Beck’s new diagrammatic design took over. It was inspired by electrical circuits, and was hailed as a solution to the problem of clearly mapping an expanding an increasingly complex network. Every map since Beck’s, including today’s tube maps, includes the text: “This diagram is an evolution of the original design conceived in 1931 by Harry Beck” – proudly displaying the legacy of his functional, geometrical model.
Tube maps after Beck, however, stayed pretty much the same, aside from a minor scandal when Transport for London tried to remove the blue line representing the Thames in 2009. The social media furore this caused is expressive of a sense of lost aesthetic and a longing for past maps that were more true to the actual geography of London. Street names, buildings, landmarks, direction, and distance have all been dropped in favour of greater clarity, but the Thames is one line the tube map can’t cross.
Perhaps this longing for a more decorative, realistic map is the reason this exhibition exists at all: the efforts of Art on the Underground and their new tube map covers since 2004 have attempted to counteract the soulless, utilitarian experience of commuting. Artist Agnes Poitevin-Navarre collected commuters’ responses to the question: “Where do you hope to be?” and plotted them on a wall-sized map of London. Helen Scalway, too, examines how we view the tube network and travel: she asked twenty people to draw the tube map from memory, and overlaid these on a lightbox. The result is an incoherent mess, and looks surprisingly like my favourite tube map cover, David Shrigley’s – a scribbled mess of the tube lines’ colours that expresses commuters’ frustration, and the problems of sensibly mapping London’s vast, tangled network.
If you are looking for a comprehensive history of the London Underground, Mind the Map isn’t the place to go, but the museum’s permanent collection should cover most of that ground. There are, however, some great pieces of artwork inspired by the underground on display, and vintage pocket maps galore. For anyone fascinated by map-making, design, and the distinctions between maps as art and maps as tools, this exhibition is definitely worth visiting.
Mind the Map: inspiring art, design and cartography will be London Transport Museum’s major exhibition for 2012. From diagrammatic, decorative and digital maps, through to contemporary artworks and interactives, Mind the Map will draw on the Museum’s outstanding map collection to explore how London’s public transport maps have not only aided navigation but have inspired art, design and cartography.
The exhibition will be the largest of its kind comprising previously unseen historic material and newly commissioned works by artists including Simon Patterson, Stephen Walter, Susan Stockwell, Jeremy Wood, Agnès Poitevin-Navarre and Claire Brewster.
Mind the Map will be accompanied by an extensive public events programme and a book to be published by Lund Humphries - London Underground Maps: Inspiring Art, Design and Cartography.
Our audiences will have the chance to participate, both before and during the exhibition, in our exploration of what a map is, can and should be. Art commissions by Agnes Poitevin-Navarre and Susan Stockwell will be shaped using public content, meaning that you have the chance to contribute directly to the artworks.
London Transport MuseumCovent Garden Piazza
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 7BB
Monday-Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 10:00-18:00 (last admission 17:15)
Friday 11:00-18:00 (last admission 17:15)