My old friend the globe

Online applications providing a very precise overlook of the Earth are abundant. Google Earth, Nasa World Wind, WorldWide Telescope and many others all give you the opportunity to zoom in on any geographic zone and visualise the earth from any height, whether from a faraway satellite point of view or from a few meters above the ground, so that you can distinguish the hilly areas. Considering these possibilities, a traditional terrestrial globe is completely irrelevant in terms of knowledge efficiency. Whereas 3D applications are regularly updated, a globe never changes once it has been made. The traditional globe is frozen in a representation which ties in with the scientific knowledge of the present situation but can never evolve.

The main difference between these two systems of comprehending the world is linked to the de-materialisation induced by modern software. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan writes that “the medium is the message”, meaning that the medium used to transmit information moulds and influences the message itself. With software, as the medium is a screen, it creates a barrier between you and the representation of Earth. On the contrary, a globe is a material object that can be held and rotated. A 3D representation on a screen cannot be owned in the same way a globe can. As a material and a historical medium, the globe conveys lots of significations that save it from complete obsolescence.

The complex iconography of the terrestrial globe can be analysed to understand why it is still a valuable object in our contemporary society. Whereas the first apparition of planetary globes dates back to Ancient Greece, the object’s capital success is linked with the Age of Exploration. Until today, the globe has been associated in our occidental minds with the great explorations of the 15th century. Over the centuries, the globe has become a symbol of knowledge, erudition, and curiosity. The scientific value of the terrestrial globe is both illustrated and transmitted through its representations, as in the famous portrait The Astronomer (1669) by Vermeer, at the centre of which can be found a globe. The object is the vanishing point and captures the sunlight. Though the astronomer is confined to his room, he turns towards outside since he is facing the enlightened window. He is opened to the outside world, but only through his globe: he is rotating it, and the light falling from the window onto the globe seems to reflect on his face. In this case, the globe brings him knowledge as well as allowing to express an interest in the world. These meanings and qualities of the globe are still attached to this object nowadays.

Besides, as it is linked to the Age of Discovery, the globe is related to a very occidental vision of the Earth as something to be conquered. The imposing size of Coronelli’s giant globes (4m diameter), which were built in the late 17th century for Louis the 14th and which have been exhibited since 2005 in the Hall of Globes of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, is an obvious demonstration of power by the Sun King. The globe is also used as an embodiment of imperialism in the globe scene of The Great Dictator (1940) by Charlie Chaplin. Alone in his huge office, the dictator Hynkel dances with a huge lightweight globe which is actually a balloon. He projects onto the globe his imperialistic dream and his fantasy of world domination, before the globe explodes in his face. Here the globe is a very powerful symbol of might and conquest.

These examples show that the globe is closely connected to art. Its historical fabrication as a handmade object painted by famous artists also leads us to see the globe as a 3D painting. Moreover, the growing museumification of globes (such as Coronelli’s globes at the BNF) is proof that a globe has an aura created by its status both of artefact and of semiotically complex object. And it is precisely because the globe is much more a symbolic object than an object of knowledge that it acquires its precious aura. The globe may be obsolete but it cannot be secluded by any online applications, for its status has evolved, leading us to the following conclusion: obsolescence is not disappearance, it is transformation.

- The Astronomer (1669), Vermeer - Coronelli's globes at the BNF - The Unisphere in NYC - Hynkel with his globe in The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin
– The Astronomer (1669), Vermeer
– Coronelli’s globes at the BNF
– The Unisphere in NYC
– Hynkel with his globe in The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin

Le globe terrestre, apparu dès l’Antiquité grecque, fait partie des innovations majeures en matière de représentation du monde. Pourtant, aujourd’hui, son statut d’objet de connaissance est remis en cause par les nombreux logiciels de modélisation de la Terre ultra-performants et régulièrement mis à jour. Comment expliquer alors que le globe reste encore un objet très prisé de nos jours ? Un petit détour par son histoire et sa riche iconographie pour y voir plus clair.

By Tasnime Pen Point


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