Assistant Textile Conservator, Stella Gardner adjusting a silk dress made from escape and evade maps used during the Second World War, on loan from Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. Image © Stewart Attwood

New display explores the personal stories behind Second World War Maps

A new display at the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle will explore the purpose, importance and personal significance of military maps in the Second World War.  

A selection of press images are available here.

Between 1939 – 1945, over 36 million photographs and 342 million maps were produced by the British Armed Forces alone. The maps and photographs in Maps: Memories from the Second World War (9 March 2024 to 25 Jan 2026) have changed purpose from their original use. No longer a vital tool in directing troops or devising a plan for escape, they are now mementos and memories, kept alongside medals and photographs, acting as a marker to say, ‘I was here’. 

The display was inspired by the painting, 'Major Robert W. Cairns MBE, TD, MA Father's Memorabilia, North West Europe', (1995), by Joyce W Cairns PPRSA. Major Robert W. Cairns MBE served in various posts and locations during the war. From 1943, he was responsible for organising the travel network for the movement of troops and supplies across the inadequate and congested roads of Northern Europe. The painting depicts the artist’s father’s memorabilia from the Second World War.  

Julie Gibb, Assistant Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland said: 

Cairns’ painting and the personal collections of other Second World War veterans inspired us to produce this display to examine the creation, use and reinterpretation of maps. Maps: Memories of the Second World War explores the purpose of a map as much more than just a physical or a functional object and reveals the stories of the people who kept these maps as a memory of a personal journey.

An unusual object featured in the display is a silk dress made from escape and evade maps used during the Second World War, on loan from Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. Fabric maps were issued to pilots and Special Forces in the event that they were shot down, trapped behind enemy lines and needed to escape. 

A British Army Officer is credited with the idea of printing escape maps on silk. Christopher Clayton Hutton, an inventor and MI9 British Army Officer, was inspired to use the material for maps as silk is waterproof, quiet to open and easy to hide or sew into clothing. When the maps no longer served their original purpose, this valuable material was used to make clothing in an era of post war rationing. MI9 (British Military Intelligence) employed Hutton and former magician Jasper Maskelyne to devise ingenious ways to smuggle maps, compasses, money and fake documentation into Prisoner of War camps. Working with firms such as John Waddington & Co (makers of Monopoly), items were hidden in board games, playing cards and gramophone records. MI9 delivered parcels through bogus charities such as the ‘Prisoners Leisure Hours Fund’ with them hidden inside. 

Edinburgh based cartography firm John Bartholomew & Son Ltd supplied paper copies and printing plates of their small-scale world maps to be used for the MI9 ‘escape and evasion’ maps 

The display also includes footage from the National Collection of Arial Photography and highlights the importance of aerial photography through items such as the logbook and photographs of Flight Lieutenant Thomas D MacMillan, and a stereoscope used to view images of the landscape below in 3D. 

Maps: Memories from the Second World War is on display from 9 March 2024 to 25 Jan 2026.  

Notes to editors

  1. National Museums Scotland is one of the leading museum groups in the UK and Europe and it looks after collections of national and international importance. The organisation provides loans, partnerships, research and training in Scotland and internationally. Our individual museums are the National Museum of Scotland, the National Museum of Flight, the National Museum of Rural Life and the National War Museum. The National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh houses conservation and research facilities as well as collections not currently on display.  

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  2. For more on the National Collection of Aerial Photography, visit NCAP - National Collection of Aerial Photography | NCAP - National Collection of Aerial Photography