Professor Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University takes part in our #LoveMaps Campaign.
Centres of Cartographic Attention
Global maps present challenges to cartographers. In attempting to represent the entire world, perplexing practical and political decisions have to be made. Practically, there is, of course, the issue of representing a three-dimensional sphere in two dimensions. This challenge has given rise to numerous map projections of the world, ranging from Mercator to Cassini, and from Goode homolosine to Gall-Peters. Each projection has its own merits, perhaps related to its ability to avoid distortion, or its potential utility for navigational purposes. Politically, there is the question of what to place at the centre of the map, and what you relegate to its peripheries. Should the focus of the map be the Greenwich Meridian or perhaps the poles (as we see in the disorienting Cassini projection)?
This political question of what should occupy the centre of our global cartographic projections provides a segue in to the map I would like to discuss within this post. This map of The World was prepared for the National Geographic Magazine ca. 1922. It has a number of interesting features. It outlines early trans-Atlantic aeroplane routes, many of which had been authorised, but not yet used (Charles Lindberg’s first solo flight across the Atlantic was not until 1927). The map also marks out several ‘unexplored regions’ in the Arctic and Antarctic. The map is based on the Van der Grinten projection. The projection is interesting for two main reasons. First, this is a ‘compromise’ map projection, which seeks to preserve the basic outlines of a Mercator map, while minimising its distortions. Second, the projection was conceived by one Alphon J. van der Grinten. Van der Grinten was an American who developed his map projections in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Van der Grinten’s nationality may help to explain why the National Geographic Magazine (the magazine of the American National Geographic Society) may have commissioned a map based on this particular projection (van der Grinten projections are commonly found in the US). What is certain is that this particular projection accentuates the size and significance of Northern Hemisphere nations like the US, while diminishing the relative size of nations nearer to the Equator.
What most interests me about this map, however, is not its projection, but its central focus. The positioning of the Americas at the heart of the map should come as no surprise: this is, of course, common for maps produced for US audiences. However, giving the Americas pride of place has interesting consequences for other countries. Russia is cut crudely in half, with parts of Siberia in the eastern hemisphere and others in the west. India is unevenly dissected with the most easterly territories (today largely constituting Bangladesh) suddenly appearing on the far west of the world map. I have never been particularly comfortable with Britain being the centre of global maps, given the colonial ideologies this has historically supported. Nevertheless, the use of the Greenwich Meridian as the centre of a world map does appear to do the least amount of damage the cartographic representation of other states of the world (with the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean offering the edges of the map). But even then, Pacific Island states can often see their territorial integrities disrupted. Cartographically speaking, it appears that whatever projections and modes of division are chosen, world maps can never please all of the nations all of the time.
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