What’s UpA novel approach to map-reading.

Issue 52

, Starters

,
  • Words Okechukwu Nzelu
  • Photo Melissa Schriek

Issue 52

, Starters

,
  • Words Okechukwu Nzelu
  • Photo Melissa Schriek

In 1979, college student Stuart McArthur published his “Universal Corrective Map of the World.” The map righted what McArthur felt was an enduring wrong: He rotated the Earth 180 degrees to place his native Australia top and center and “relegated” North America and Europe to the bottom.

Reading McArthur’s map is a disorienting experience. At first, you don’t know where to look—the continents are suddenly unrecognizable; home isn’t where it usually is. And yet it is no less accurate than any north-up map. McArthur intended his map to challenge how ingrained the assumption is that north means “up”—an assumption that has no basis in science. In space, the Earth does not have any particular orientation: Blue Marble, one of the most famous photos of our planet, taken in 1972 by astronauts on their way to the moon, has south at the top, but it is rarely seen like this—in most versions, the picture has been flipped to conform with our conventional image of the planet.

It hasn’t always been this way. The history of cartography shows that maps have been designed to reflect and perpetuate the values, assumptions and needs of the cultures and circumstances in which they arise. In Christian medieval Europe, for example, maps typically were oriented toward east—both because it was the direction of the rising sun and because it pointed to Jerusalem, where Christ’s resurrection was expected to happen. In the medieval Muslim world, maps were oriented toward south, perhaps because this is also what Chinese maps did at the time. 

ISSUE 52

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