Thursday 27 September 2012

Geographical sensitivities

At the start of the British Museum's temporary exhibition, Ritual and revelry: the art of drinking in Asia, there is a map of a large part of Asia. At the bottom of the map, there is the following statement: "The names and designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the British Museum". The intention is presumably not to upset anyone who might think that the map implied territorial claims that they rejected, or who rejected certain place names because of their historical or political associations.

This strikes me as silly over-sensitivity. No boundary lines are drawn on the map. The only remotely contentious labels on the map are "Tibetan Plateau" (instead of "Tibet"), "Korea" (not distinguishing North from South), and "Burma" (instead of "Myanmar"). Taiwan is not labelled at all. I cannot see any reason why anyone could reasonably take offence at what is on the map. And if someone took offence at the absence of names for some countries, or at the absence of boundary lines, that would be equally unreasonable. It is not just Taiwan and Tibet that are not labelled. Several countries are not labelled, simply because there is no need for the map to show that much detail.

It is not, however, simply a matter of over-sensitivity to people's political and geographical sensibilities. There is a second-order issue. By adding the statement, the British Museum has conceded that it is reasonable for people to make a fuss about maps which are published by bodies that have nothing to do with any governments or aspiring governments, and where the bodies clearly do not have any intention to make political waves in the regions mapped.

I am concerned at a possible consequence of making that concession, a consequence that is by no means certain to ensue, but that would nonetheless be serious. It is this. Such a concession would put us on the road to allowing scholarship to be constrained by political, cultural and religious sensitivities: "Don't present that result, or that theory, it would upset such and such a group". Over the past few centuries, we have gradually shed such constraints, although we have not got rid of them completely. Their return would be an intellectual disaster.


  1. But is it a question of scholarship whether you distinguish between North and South Korea and call the Tibetan Plaeau simply Tibet ?

    Or is it a question of taking sides with one or other political view ?

  2. I do not think it need be a question of scholarship, what one calls areas. Ideally, one should use labels that identify the right areas, and that do not skew scholarly discussion. Thus to take the example of Korea, one might wish to refer to the Korean peninsula if that was the area meant, or to South Korea if that country corresponded, at least nearly enough, to the area meant. (Of course, one would use the names of the political units if that was what one wanted to pick out.)

    The important thing, from the point of view of scholarship, is that political, ethnic or religious sensitivities should never be allowed to stand in the way of reporting the evidence, and the interpretation one wishes to put on it.