From the first modern map of Britain to Grayson Perry's contemporary maps, Bodleian exhibition reveals the fascinating stories maps tell

Talking Maps | Weston Library, Broad Street | 5 July 2019 - 8 March 2020

29 April 2019

Talking Maps, a new exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries, celebrates maps and the stories they tell about the places they show and the people that make and use them.

Photo of the Gough map 

The exhibition showcases iconic treasures from the Bodleian’s world-renowned collection of more than 1.5 million maps, together with exciting new works on loan and specially commissioned 3D installations. Featuring ‘imaginary maps’ such as Grayson Perry’s Red Carpet and Map of Nowhere and JRR Tolkien’s maps of Middle-earth, the exhibition offers a new perspective on the enduring power of maps.

Talking Maps explores how maps are neither transparent objects of scientific communication, nor ideological tools, but proposals about the world that help people to understand who they are by describing where they are. It shows how cities are administered using maps, and how they can also be used to deceive its attackers; how maps are used in war, and drawing national boundaries; and how artists can use them to reflect on the state of our nation in light of Brexit. Others provide routes to religious salvation, while online interactive maps show us the global and environmental challenges we face in the 21st-century.

Jerry Brotton, co-curator of the exhibition, said:

"Every map tells a story. The exhibition shows how maps are creative objects that establish conversations between the people who made them and the individuals and communities that use them."

The exhibition is curated by Jerry Brotton, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London and author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps, and Nick Millea, Map Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries.

Nick Millea, said:

"Maps do so much more than simply getting us from A to B. Talking Maps highlights the diverse and surprising role of maps through the ages, from guides to the afterlife and windows into alternative worlds to tools that have been used to manage land, nations and empires."

Photo of the Red Carpet by Grayson PerryThe exhibition brings together an extraordinary selection of ancient, pre-modern and contemporary maps drawn from a range of cultures and in a variety of formats. Some are made of animal skin, some woven in wool, others made from the leaves of coconut trees, and the exhibition also shows how maps have migrated from paper to pixels in recent years. Talking Maps will appeal to map lovers as well as anyone interested in the power of maps in fiction, art, history, war, religion and spirituality.

The exhibition features items that have never been publicly displayed before including NewcastleGateshead, a photomontage map by the acclaimed artist Layla Curtis; a surviving fragment of the Sheldon tapestry map of Gloucestershire, one of a set of four 16th-century tapestry maps; and a Tibetan thangka—a Buddhist ‘map’ showing the path to personal enlightenment.

Highlights of the exhibition include:

  • Grayson Perry’s tapestry, Red Carpet (2017),designed to express the state of the nation following the Brexit vote and his etching Map of Nowhere (2008) which explores his own belief system
  • The iconic Gough Map (late 14th-century), the earliest surviving map showing Great Britain in a recognizable form
  • The Selden Map, a late Ming map of the South China Sea, which is the first known Chinese-made map to enter England, rediscovered at the Bodleian in 2008
  • Fictional maps including CS Lewis’ map of Narnia and J.R.R.Tolkien’s maps of Middle-earth
  • Islamic maps such as Muslim scholar al-Idrīsī’s world map, one of the greatest works of medieval map-making, which draws on Islamic cosmology and geography
  • Maps from World War II including a D-day landing map
  • Historic maps of Oxford including a pictorial birds-eye view of the city from 1675, a 19th-century ‘drink map’ and never-before-displayed maps of Thomas Sharp’s post-war plan to redesign Oxford
  • A vast map of Laxton in Nottinghamshire, the last remaining feudal village in England, which remains largely unchanged four centuries on from the map’s creation in 1635
  • Specially-commissioned 3D installations, never displayed before, created by Factum Arte, which recreate a famous lost world map by the 12th-century Muslim geographer al-Sharif al-Idrīsī.
Catriona Cannon, Deputy Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, said:

"The unparalleled historical richness and cultural diversity of the Bodleian’s map collection make it one of the greatest cartographic collections in the world, and it is growing daily. Talking Maps invites visitors to come and enjoy the fascinating tales that the collection has to tell and to see some stunning maps on loan from twenty-first-century artists and map-makers."

Image of a Tibetan mapThe exhibition explores the latest digital developments in cartography. On screens in the gallery, visitors will be able to explore thought-provoking ‘cartograms’, interactive maps that use statistics and big data to tell powerful stories about our changing world.

The Bodleian Libraries gratefully acknowledges the support received from donors who have made the Talking Maps exhibition possible.

Talking Maps will be accompanied by an engaging programme of free talks and events at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, including a Library Late event. For more information visit

An accompanying publication to the exhibition, Talking Maps(£35),by Jerry Brotton and Nick Millea, will be released by Bodleian Library Publishing in July 2019. Other maps books being published to coincide with the exhibition include Fifty Maps and the Stories they Tell (£12) by Millea and Brotton and Why North is Up (£20) by Mick Ashworth. All three titles are available for pre-order from For early material or review copies, please contact Emma O’Bryen at or 07505 695641.

Back to top