Maps have multiple tasks: getting us to where we want (and dream) to go. Showing the boundaries of those wants (and dreams). Revealing shifts, changes, annexations by force or purchase.
Maps are essential to navigating this world and beyond. As Lea Nickless—curator and author of Plotting Power: Maps and the Modern Age, the book and exhibition at The Wolfsonian–FIU in Miami Beach (currently on view through April 16)—states, “maps are mirrors of our loftiest dreams and deepest fears. [They] draw literal lines between ‘you’ and ‘me,’ ‘us’ and ‘other,’ more often reflecting how we see it than how it is.”
The exhibit follows the use of map-like imagery for political (propaganda), commercial (advertising and trademark) and other purposes (including illustration and cartoon) in the first half of the 20th century, when the possibilities of travel and technology opened new opportunities for global ambitions. Featuring Wolfsonian collection items including paintings, prints, posters, industrial design, ceramics and graphic materials, it traces how maps and other representations of geography were shaped by design strategies and agendas.
Curator Nickless agreed to guide us on a semi-virtual-verbal tour of this decidedly global showcase.
(All images from the Wolfsonian collection, except where noted.)
What was your impetus and goal in curating this fascinating exhibit?
I’ve been immersed in this very particular collection for decades—I started working for founder Micky Wolfson in the 1980s and over the years have developed a keen sense of its hidden treasures and unexpected patterns. The Wolfsonian–FIU collection is enormous—more than 200,000 objects ranging from massive machines to ephemeral postcards (and everything in between)! My happiest moments are when I have the luxury of time for a dive deep, hunting down connections and surfacing with stories to tell.
At some point, I noticed a rich vein of geographic imagery. I found maps to sell products and advertise events, maps to celebrate nations and validate empire-building, and maps to incite fear and promulgate hatred. I was interested in how these graphic representations of location and space were imbued with a certain authority, making them widely trusted tools to navigate an increasingly complex world. As such, they were strategically positioned for use by agents of power—corporations, nations or political entities—to promote, persuade and manipulate. I wanted to delve into these ideas and, with any luck, pique the viewer’s curiosity about how global views are formed. I hope that this exhibition does what The Wolfsonian does best—provide a forum for an exploration of the past in order to better identify and decode patterns as they evolve and repeat over time.
The symbol of the globe seems to represent many points of view (literally and symbolically). Do you see it as all-purpose or very purposeful?
It is interesting to consider how this supposedly fixed symbol—the globe—is so changeable when deployed by diverse entities. In some cases, the intent is fairly benign—a marketing strategy to position a business within the international sphere. Take Herbert Bayer’s illustration for a General Electric brochure. Hands clasp a transparent radio tube‐turned‐globe while space-age symbols pattern a sky‐blue background. The implicit message: By using GE products, you are plugging into the world and into the future. Same for the papier-mâché eagle atop a globe: a store window display for a Majestic Radio dealer. Others are obviously propagandistic, intending to persuade, as in the 1932 election poster depicting a looming Paul von Hindenburg-as-Atlas holding a stylized globe on his shoulder while a child-like Hitler exclaims, “I’m even stronger.” Hindenburg won but the Nazi Party was too powerful and Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany the following year. Another strong image, in this case intended to provoke fear and hatred, is a poster produced in occupied France during the Second World War in which a British bulldog is devouring the globe, blood dripping at sites of French colonial holdings.
Can the globe or a map be trademarked or registered by a company or corporation?
Indeed, but an example of blatant disregard for copyright issues is an anti-German map first published in Britain in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. British artist John Henry Amshewitz comically rendered each European country through allegorical personification. Britain is a Union Jack waist-coated John Bull striding purposely forward while France’s Marianne, bayonet in hand, defends against a menacing black eagle (Germany). The image was copied verbatim the next year by German propagandists with text added to emphasize Britain’s war-mongering intent. This kind of overt appropriation (and weaponization) of imagery would never fly today. Of course, this was during wartime, when legal guarantees are often thrown to the wind. But your question also makes me wonder, what does it mean for a globe or a map to be trademarked? Is the registering entity staking a claim, positioning their worldview as an authorized reality?
The majority of the show is vintage globes and maps, where the world itself was mysterious. Can you address the modern symbolism of planet Earth now that we are so familiar with it from the heavens?
It is so interesting to consider the impact of that first image of the entire globe from space! I was 11 years old when Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt photographed the planet and remember being transfixed and filled with wonder—how was it possible that all of what I knew as life was contained on this small, delicate orb? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. This view from the heavens was transformative, and not just for me. It sparked an international sense of the planet’s fragility as well as consciousness around global unity—from space there are no national boundaries. Adaptations of that photographic depiction of the Earth are now widely used in everything from the logo for Earth Day to the satellite navigation system in my car. This is a real shift from the visual representations of maps and constructed globes found in the exhibition.
Maps keep changing, boundaries are altered … how is this symbolic representation going to evolve?
As I was curating the exhibition, Russia invaded Ukraine and I felt compelled to devote a small section to their history of conflict. Over the last 100 years, Ukraine has witnessed multiple challenges to its borders and sovereignty and I went on a hunt in the collection to see what I could uncover. While I found Soviet brochures touting Ukraine as a tourist destination and posters depicting its rich natural resources, the Soviet machine kept much of what was really happening under wraps. What wasn’t reported to the world was that in the early 1930s, millions of Ukrainians were starving to death during the Holodomor, a catastrophic man-made famine.
Now in the 21st century, we can observe the current conflict in real time with access to digital maps generated via open-source intelligence. Websites such as Liveaumap.com (Live Universal Awareness Map), developed by Ukrainian software engineers, filter data gathered from the internet (including social media platforms), delivering up-to-the-minute information in map format. We now know more about what is happening—and sooner—than ever before.
What is happening now in Ukraine is a work-in-progress, revealing how representations of national boundaries change as a reflection of conflict and political activities. It is also part of a larger ongoing pattern. In my own lifetime, maps have been updated time and again as countries dissolve and others spring into existence. What happens now, I wonder, as physical representations that document those changes over time cease to exist?