From the Toolbox of a Serving Library

"Upside down" Tube map (draft), Harry Beck.

What does it mean to turn a map upside down? Hanging on the walls of the Walter Phillips Gallery, as part of The Serving Library, is a version of Harry Beck’s London Underground map that documents the Tube system by way of fantastic and deceivingly simple abstraction. As it was famously hung at London’s Victoria & Albert museum, here it hangs “upside down.”

But to orient the map otherwise from North pointing toward the relative top of the page does not change the integrity of the map’s representation. The relationship between the coordinates are maintained, and may even be clearer, as when a person is travelling from from North to South, or crosswise longitudinally. In an unfamiliar city, I often turn maps to face the same orientation as my travelling so as to easily understand “left” and “right” as directional imperatives.

The preliminary form of Beck’s map that Dexter Sinister reproduced in Dot Dot Dot ∞ does not feature a compass and it is free of textual language. It accompanies an article by Paul Elliman, City Turned Upside Down, that makes much of the fact that the map has been variously oriented (it was also published “upside down” in 1969 in a book about Beck’s work). So, what does it mean to hang a map upside down? Does such an action represent error on behalf of the museum technicians or production team, or does it indicate a stiff reluctance for those living in the northern hemisphere to imagine (or read) ways of abstracting the world that do not privilege our relative position?

The world "upside down."


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