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The Politics of Globes

By Mark Ellwood

Aug 11, 2021

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Every globe has its maker's imprint, like those custom-made by Bellerby & Co in the UK.

Photo by Paul Marc Mitchell, courtesy of Bellerby & Co Globemakers

Every globe has its maker's imprint, like those custom-made by Bellerby & Co in the UK.

Every cartographer must take a stance on borders—and in so doing could spark fury.

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The world is beset by border disputes. Some are headline grabbing, like Russia’s claim to Crimea, which it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, while others are less widely known—think China and Japan’s spat over eight miniscule, uninhabited islands west of Okinawa, or even the bickering between Belize and Guatemala that’s lasted 200 years. Every cartographer, or at least their employer, must take a stance on each of these—and in doing so, could spark fury.

Controversy and cartography, then, are inextricably linked. It’s a little easier for those making two-dimensional maps now that much of their work is digital; the borders they depict are more malleable, able to be tweaked in a moment should an error be made or a regime insist on localized adjustments. (Indeed, this interactive map allows its designers to display all sides of the 150 or so border disputes across the world.)

For globe makers, though, there’s no such sidestepping. Their physical product is permanent and embodies their decisions. Globes are definitive, both souvenirs and tools, and so have greater heft today. As a result, they can prove especially provocative, according to cartographer Steven Feldman, founder of KnowWhere Consulting, which offers Feldman’s map-based strategic services. Feldman stresses that maps have always been props for propaganda. Historically, they were often commissioned by countries or wealthy patrons to help shore up their claims to land. It’s part of the reason there’s a vast map room in the Vatican, he notes—aiming to connect the Papacy’s spiritual power with earthbound clout.

Globes’ usefulness in propaganda is innate, because mapmaking is an editing process; were every detail included, the map would be as large as the territory it depicts. Today, there’s less ability to use them to offer a unique point of view, sometimes deliberately so. (See how Google Maps encourages crowdsourcing of details or corrections.) Globes, though, remain idiosyncratic and undemocratic; their size demands the ultimate geographical précis. “The question is: What detail do you leave off? What do you focus on?” Feldman says.

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The reason for such fixations today lies with the fact that globes are no longer household staples. In the 1930s, a process was developed that allowed mass manufacture of an item that had been a rarefied treat until then—essentially, printing the surface map in two dimensions, before wrapping it on a metal sphere. It put globes in the reach, and bedrooms, of many children; 10 years later, annual sales were estimated at 300,000 stateside. Since the internet put a map in every person’s hand, though, it diminished the allure, or even usefulness, of globes. They have become an opt-in statement, rather than a rite-of-passage purchase for families—and as a result, have acquired a gravitas that requires consideration of every component.

Globes are definitive, both souvenirs and tools, and so have greater heft today.

Peter Bellerby tackles such questions every day. He runs Bellerby & Co, one of the last companies in the world specializing in handmade, bespoke globes—the other dominant firm is Lander and May, and both are based in the United Kingdom. (It’s hardly surprising that many of the foremost figures in this field are British, a likely legacy of the country’s own keenness to control the maps of the world, daubing wide swaths in pink to indicate the extent of its empire.)

While there are conventions in symbols and signage—the dashes, dots, legends, and labels depicting the man-made world—the choice of where borders lie is entirely subjective, Bellerby notes. There is no universally recognized arbiter in cartography; neither the United Nations nor Google can act as a benchmark. Since starting his company more than a decade ago, the globe maker has relied on his gut instinct as to where he should, quite literally, draw the line. Take the high-ranking executive who asked him to produce a globe for display in his office on which Israel was omitted; Bellerby refused point blank. “It’s not the ask itself, but who asks,” he says. “It’s just not right—you can’t make the world to your own vision.” But when a Lebanese customer commissioned a piece—Israel included—the globe maker happily agreed. (Although conciliatory talks began last year, Lebanon is one of many majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East that still does not recognize Israel as a legitimate country.) As a result, Bellerby warned his client, a globe depicting Israel would be impounded by the government if shipped. “So he smuggled it in himself, over the border,” Bellerby says.

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It’s strange to think you could tweak the world’s layout, but that’s what’s happening with the gift Bellerby is currently crafting. It’s intended for an American who works in an official capacity in Morocco; the buyer asked for an adjustment as a result. The focus was on Western Sahara, a small desert strip contested by both Morocco and an independence movement known as the Polisario Front; the government in Casablanca does not recognize its declaration of statehood. “It’s a rather under-the radar disputed territory, and he’ll be receiving Moroccan officials to his office, and we don’t want the globe to embarrass him,” Bellerby says. His solution? Marking the boundary between the countries lightly, signaling a loose border, and labeling it as the Sahara Region underneath. “Whatever we do, we have the potential to offend one side or other, so we want to get the reasoning behind someone’s wish to change something,” he says. The rationale behind such decisions should be transparent, adds cartographer Steven Feldman; make decisions explicit rather than furtive. “Every globe should come with a booklet that recognizes borders are contentious and explains the philosophy it has used,” he says.

Then again, perhaps it’s better to reframe our expectations of what a globe can, or should, be. That’s what Vivien Godfrey believes. She’s the CEO of Stanfords, a bookseller focusing on travel for more than 160 years that claims to offer the largest collection of globes of any physical retailer. Globes, she asserts, are no longer primarily informative, but decorative; it changes how we should regard them. “They are wonderful at giving a sense of relativity and reality, but not detail—the surface is so small,” she says. “The main way they’re an educational tool is the fact they’re round, like the Earth.” If you’re squeamish about any political elements, why not opt for a physical globe that depicts geography and geology instead, she suggests.

So much for globes we might buy in a store, like Stanfords, but what of the antique versions still on sale at auctions or in junk shops, often preserving a colonial view of the world that’s out of step with our sensibilities. Is it appropriate to display them any longer? Yes, Godfrey says, but with caveats: Why not cluster a few of them together, from different eras, to show how changes happened in the world, and sidestep any suggestion of endorsing a particular moment (or empire)?

Feldman agrees, offering a similar workaround: Pair antique globes from the same period made in different parts of the world. That will show that even in the past, there were competing cartographic views of the world. “The assertions of mapmakers in different countries at the same time were radically different, and it’s a snapshot of history,” Feldman says. A German globe from the early 20th century, for instance, and a British-made one from the same time offer a foreshadowing of the first World War, with clashing claims over swaths of East Africa. “Look at old globes like that, where there’s very little detail, and ask yourself: Did you not know what was there, or were we just not interested in it?”

>> Next: Hitchhiking Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

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