International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

Maps and Plans

  It is a very bad history text book that does not include detailed maps of the spatial context of the events being analysed.

It can often be very difficult to appreciate the geo-political implications of international conflict without a map to show relative proximity or size of the countries involved.

How can the Cold War ‘domino theory’ be understood without an appreciation of the location of Laos and Cambodia in relation to Vietnam? What meaning can Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech convey unless we understand where Stettin and Trieste are?

Strengths   Limitations
Importantly historical maps can provide us with information not about where places and peoples are, but where they once were. Stettin was part of Germany in 1945, but today it is a place called Szczecin in Poland. Historical maps can therefore be essential in helping us recreate the spatial context of a world that has long gone. Where are Zaire, Abyssinia or Persia on the map today? Where was the battle of Stalingrad fought or the Treaty of Pressburg signed?

On a smaller scale maps are essential to military historians to show the relationship between forces on a battlefield. But they can also be used by social and economic historians to show how a town has developed over time or illustrate the movements of crowds in a riot or revolution. Try to explain your theory of how Kennedy was assassinated without drawing a sketch map of Dealey Plaza and the ‘Grassy Knoll’. (see below)

On the smallest scale historians can also make use of architectural plans. Just as historical maps can provide us with evidence of cityscapes that no longer exist so architectural plans can provide us with evidence of buildings that have been destroyed in fire and war. (see film below)
  The limitations of maps are very similar to the limitations of statistics. The accuracy of a map depends on the quality of research that has gone into producing it. Maps like statistics can be used for propaganda purposes or to fit a nationalist agenda. Consider the richly illustrated maps of the British Empire designed to hang in every English school classroom. The different projections that can be used to produce a map of the world can make Europe seem bigger or the United States at the centre. A reliably accurate world map can even be produced to have Australia at the top.

The most obvious weakness of maps and plans like statistics is that there is only so much about the past that can be conveyed by a map. A map tells us nothing of life of the people who live in the countries illustrated.

Try to explain your theory of President Kennedy's assassination without
drawing a sketch map of Dealey Plaza and the ‘Grassy Knoll’.
This short film includes extracts from documentary films that show how maps and plans help to make sense of the past.



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