A global view


The artistry of centuries-old globes is only one aspect of their continuing allure.


Globe Room, Maps of the Pacific exhibition
In a matter of seconds, using Google Earth, you can dive from thousands of kilometres above the planet all the way down to the street outside your own home. And yet, despite the staggering amount of detail captured by satellite imagery, there is still something fascinating about holding a globe and spinning it in your hands.

Trying to capture this dizzying sense of wonder was a challenge as we prepared a display of 18 historical globes as part of the Library’s Maps of the Pacific exhibition. Although they were made to have fingertips tracing journeys across their surfaces, they are now incredibly fragile.

These globes span from the late sixteenth to the nineteenth century. They record 300 years of European exploration of the Pacific, the ocean that covers nearly a third of the earth’s surface. As each successive globe depicts the region’s geography more accurately, it imposes colonial markings on lands with ancient cultures. Spidery tracks mark explorers’ voyages, places are named and renamed, and different colours are applied to signify possession.

As well as these terrestrial globes, the Library has many celestial globes, which show the position of stars and constellations in the night sky. Across many cultures, navigators have used the stars to determine their location at sea.

En masse, these globes make an arresting sight. Not only is scientific knowledge on display, but also the craft and artistry of globemaking as it developed over time. Early globes were luxury objects that few could afford. Engraved by hand into metal, or painted onto wooden spheres covered in fabric or vellum, they were costly and time-consuming to produce.

The invention of printing in the fifteenth century — and its wider use from the sixteenth century — changed the way globes were made. Multiple copies of the gores (the paper segments that cover a globe with the image of a map) could be printed from the same set of copper plates. Included in the exhibition are a terrestrial and a celestial set of gores, made in 1693 by the Italian globemaker Vincenzo Coronelli. They were designed for globes measuring an immense 107 cm in diameter, but never affixed to the shells. Seeing them unfurled like this, we can appreciate the skill and imagination needed to prepare a map in spherical form.

As production techniques improved, globes became part of everyday life in homes, schools, offices and libraries. But despite their ubiquity and utility, they maintained a distinct aesthetic appeal.

Even the smallest globe in the exhibition is striking to look at. With the title The Earth and Its Inhabitants — and just 4.3 cm in diameter — it was produced in the mid-nineteenth century as an educational tool for children.

The earth and its inhabitants, c 1830–1840, by Carl Johann Sigmund Bauer

A vibrantly hand-coloured accordion strip of paper folds out from the box, showing a series of male figures that corresponds to different places on the globe. Its order has clearly been arranged to promote a supposed ‘hierarchy’ of ethnic difference, with an ‘Englishman’ at one end and a ‘Sandwich Islander’ at the other.

This tiny artefact is a reminder that globes didn’t merely record imperial expansion, but also played a role in reinforcing the ideology that underpinned it. Behind the artistry and craftsmanship, lies a complex history.

Alice Tonkinson, Assistant Curator, Research and Discovery.

Maps of the Pacific exhibition was made possible with support from the State Library of NSW Foundation.

This story appears in Openbook summer 2021.