Terrestial globe

Materials: Plastic, metal, printed paper, varnish
Dimensions: 20 centimeters diameter
Place acquired: Plantin-Moretus Museum shop, Antwerp
Place of manufacture: not known

Maps have always been political things. To draw a map has always been to know that land, to possess it, to claim it, alter it or exploit it, even if only in the imagination. We often think of maps as neutral carriers of truth, but of course they have never been only that. They also distort, fantasise, express ideas, beliefs, and cultural prejudice.

Terrestrial globes are even more suspect because they have no clearly defined practical or scientific purpose. If you want to journey round the world you don’t take a globe. A globe is at best an educational tool about our planet’s shape and geography, but apart from that it is not really a practical thing at all. It’s something more like an art object, an ornament, a status symbol, or even a fantasy of power, as in Charlie Chaplin’s famous balloon globe scene in The Great Dictator (watch it here).

That has always been the case and this little globe is a good example. It’s a miniature reproduction of a globe first made in Paris in 1745 by a famous French cartographer of the day, Gilles Robert de Vaugondy. I bought it in a print museum in Antwerp where the museum shop was allowing it to represent Dutch map and globe making of a century earlier.

From the 15th century onwards western Europe’s mapmaking evolved rapidly, keeping pace with its exploration and colonisation of the world. This globe shows a snapshot of that process. Australia is only partially mapped and is still called Nouvelle Hollande after Tasman’s voyage in 1644. Captain Cook was not to complete the map and claim the continent for Britain for another 34 years.

Even when it was first made, the original of this globe would have been intended for the homes of the rich: merchants, statesmen, royalty even. It was an ornament, an expensive conversation piece to suggest power, satisfy hubris, and establish sophistication. Modern reproductions of early globes like this are still doing a similar thing. As shelf and desk displays, or as freestanding objets d’art they serve as feel-good ornaments and executive office props that somehow celebrate human adventurousness, technological progress and our place on this planet. They recall, of course, that ferocious period of European imperialism, the ‘Age of Discovery’, although now softened and made nostalgic with the patina of age.