Mapping Sheffield Exhibit: Student engagement and the power of maps

(Reblogged from

From now until mid-August 2014 there is an exhibit in the Western Bank Library at the University of Sheffield. The exhibit is intended to showcase the historic maps held within the library’s map collection, which it does by engaging with everyday cartographies.  Curated by Andrew Moore, Amy Collins, and Elaine Ashton the exhibition includes a display of research conducted by one of my level 1 tutorial groups.  The students are:  Abigail Bower, Alice Beazer, Anna Bowker, Melanie Bolger, Liam Bear, and Olly Bellamy. They did a terrific job, not only demonstrating via the maps the relationship between class and pubs in historic Sheffield, but also pushing what we understand about leisure and social life in Victorian Britain in new directions through their findings that pubs were not particularly located in residential areas, but instead were near the factories where working class people worked.

I was asked to talk at the opening reception as I was also part of the group who offered some of the conceptual background for framing the exhibition.  I suppose I am qualified at some level to do this as I have two undergraduate BSc degrees. The first in Geography and the second, somewhat unusually in Cartography, both of which I studied at the University of Idaho in the US. What follows is broadly the text of my introduction.

Some of the Geography students involved in the exhibition

Some of the Geography students involved in the exhibition

When I was a student and I told people that I was studying cartography the first response was often—what is that? Once explained, and after the initial comment of “There is a degree in that?”; The next question was often, “But don’t we already know where everything is, why do we need more maps?” At the time, and in keeping with the times, I tended to answer as follows:

We use maps to navigate and allow us to become familiar with places that are new. As places change, we need new maps to facilitate the transition from an experience of newness to one of familiarity. It is only once we come to know a place or a route that we can cast aside the map, because we can carry it within our minds. Thus, we can live without paper maps as mapping is part of our psyche. We all are cartographers and through our mental cartographic skills we locate ourselves in the world. But until we have that knowledge, we need to rely on material maps.

That was in the 1980’s.

Subsequent to that period, how we have come to understand maps has changed. We now question how the specific gaze provided by maps is also one that reproduces power relationships. Foucauldians would argue that maps, as a technology of power, naturalise a system of values that reifies private land ownership and measures progress in terms of human dominance over space and place by making visible that which is built and rendering as empty space that which came before. Certainly maps were used as a tool to sell the idea of colonialism and empire.

Dr. Megan Blake speaking at the Mapping Sheffield exhibition opening

Dr. Megan Blake speaking at the Mapping Sheffield exhibition opening

It was not just maps themselves, but also transformations in mapping practices, through an increasing sophistication of mapping tools in the 19th and early 20th century, that enabled the separation to widen between the professional cartographer and the rest of us who are the everyday cartographers–who mark out space as place through sketches and mental maps. Through this process professional cartographers were granted authority to impose order on space and did so in ways that prioritised the pathways and places of the powerful. Through the visualisation of the present, each new succession of maps erased that which was conquered and overtaken by progress. This process of erasure also has the effect of shaping and re-framing how generations of people come to know and understand a particular location. Recently, for example, ideas around social exclusion, reinforced by maps, have been criticised for their roll in casting places as already always excluded, lesser, poor, and beyond hope.

While this is all useful thinking,  it does kind of render maps as something that we may feel guilty about. At the same, time we need them to get around and to locate ourselves. There is a middle way. We can consider that Maps are tools that offer a Gestalt ambiguity. The basic requirements of map representation (point, line, and area) help create not just the positive spaces of the powerful but also leave traces of the negative spaces of the less powerful in their visualisations. Moreover, the need to preserve the maps in order show progress and maintain the authority of the powerful also means that that which has been erased on the streets of our present remain visible in the maps of our past. Like Proust’s Madeline (see also my take on Proust and food), these old maps trigger memories and unlock stories of times and places forgotten and relegated to the recesses of our minds. Indeed, it is this madelinesque quality of maps that is what much of the University of Sheffield exhibit seeks to reveal. It does so through the ways that various aspects of a forgotten Sheffield are exposed, from forms of leisure such as theatres and music halls, now lost but once present in an area called “Little Piccadilly”, to the pubs in Kellam Island identified by the students,  to the now abandoned training grounds of the military in the First World War.

But there is also more in this exhibit. It has been pointed out that new technologies have allowed new and more democratic forms of mapping to emerge. We now see examples of very professional looking citizen maps, which in a previous era would not have been made. In Indonesia, for example, people are using twitter data to produce real time maps of flood events and thereby enable the poor to be proactive in their relationships with flooding and bypass the state in the face of potential disaster. Not only do these maps ensure livelihood, but they also allow the displaced and dispossessed to reclaim space through their own representations.

You can post your memories of Sheffield at the exhibit.

In closing let me return to where I started: with our own mental maps. Crowd sourced maps do not have to rely on high-tech, social media technologies, nor is it a requirement that they make visible just that which we may consider the extraordinary. With post-it notes, blue tac or drawing pins and paper we can produce maps of the memories of those who inhabit these spaces as part of their everyday lives, both now and in the past. These maps of ordinary life reveal the diversity of experience and the textures of emotion that turn abstract Cartesian space into inhabitable, enlivened and colourful places. To this end, and to end, we invite visitors to the exhibition to contribute their own recollections of places in Sheffield ether by pinning a memory to a map, or by producing their own mental map of what constitutes their Sheffield.  My memory is of the pub across the road from the Geography Department (the Star and Garter), it is where I watched the Twin Towers fall on 11/9/2001, an event that occurred relatively early on in my career as a Geographer at The University of Sheffield.

For more details of the exhibit please follow this link:

2 thoughts on “Mapping Sheffield Exhibit: Student engagement and the power of maps

  1. This is fascinating. I like the idea of maps being a process that anyone can get involved in. Moreover, the idea of maps being a process to understand an area and a way for a community to understand changes in its locality is vital for our changing world. Many commentators are discussing the theory of climate chaos. It is a radical way in which humans will need to understand the planet and if social media combined with maps can support communities to understand the change and also communicate the change, then I think there is hope for the future.

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes maps have libration potential. We need to move forward more on the ideas that they can also be tools for positive change, not just tools of the powerful. John Pickles and Trevor Barnes have written a bit about this.

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