Explore the World Virtually With These Rare, Centuries-Old Globes

Visitors can get up close and personal with augmented reality versions of historic globes recently digitized by the British Library

Historical globes
The British Library has digitized ten historical globes from its collection. © British Library Board

Take these historical globes for a spin, and you may be surprised by what you find. One globe bears unusual markings that indicate sea currents and trade winds crisscrossing major oceans. At three inches in diameter, another globe from 1679 is small enough to fit in your pocket.

These rare objects from the British Library’s permanent collection are too fragile for public viewing. Now, however, audiences can explore these globes—and the historical worlds they represent—up close from the comfort of home. Last month, the London cultural institution published its first collection of ten interactive historical globes. The library plans to release 30 in total, per a statement. Visitors can view the objects in augmented reality through Sketchfab, a 3-D modeling platform available online or as a mobile app.

“[Globes] seem really visible, accessible things … but actually original globes are really quite elusive and even mysterious. Because they were built as tactile objects, original ones are really rare and often in a terrible state,” Tom Harper, lead curator of antiquarian maps at the British Library, tells the Guardian’s Mark Brown. “ … We can’t bring [our globes] out for readers to look at because they are so fragile, so they are the hidden world maps and hidden star charts of the collection.”

Imaging specialists at the library worked with digitization company Cyreal to create bespoke contraptions used to photograph the globes. Some globes had to be photographed more than 1,200 times, according to Harper. Those high-resolution images will allow viewers to read surfaces that were previously illegible.

One newly digitized celestial globe, created by Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu in 1602, shows the constellations in lush detail, including depictions of Draco as a dragon and Cygnus as a flying swan with outstretched wings. Blaeu included a nova in Cygnus that he had personally observed just two years earlier.

“It is with the celestial globes that you really get so much more of the culture of the age, of the people who were looking at and making the globes,” says Harper.

Cartographers often intended terrestrial and celestial globes to be viewed together, providing a complete image of the known world.

“It was quite a profound, conceptual thing to do when you think about it,” Harper tells the Guardian.

The smallest globe on digital display is a “pocket globe,” or tiny terrestrial globe that traces the tracks of navigators Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish. According to Jessica Leigh Hester of Atlas Obscura, well-off and middle-class 17th and 18th-century Dutch and English residents would have purchased pocket globes as portable status symbols. This particular specimen belonged to Joseph Moxon, a globemaker in the court of Charles II.

Globe digitization
The London cultural institution plans on scanning a total of 30 globes. © British Library Board

Richard Cushee’s terrestrial globe stands out as another highlight of the newly available collection. Although the English globemaker produced this globe in 1730, he mistakenly depicted California as an island—an unusually late error, according to the statement.

The British Library’s collection houses about 150 historic globes dating from roughly 1600 to 1950. These objects comprise just a small, rarely seen sector of its maps collection, which includes roughly four million objects in total.

The new initiative is the library’s latest effort to digitize its expansive collections for a global audience. In 2017, the institution digitized its human-sized, 6- by 7-foot Klencke Atlas—one of the largest in the world.

“For all their ‘show’ [globes] can be remarkably elusive objects which are difficult to properly look at, study and understand,” says Harper in the statement. “For the first time, this innovative project makes a number of our most important globes available beyond the British Library’s reading rooms and exhibition galleries, to a wider audience and in a more imaginative way than ever before.”

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