From school classrooms to children’s bedrooms, wall maps remain one of the most engaging forms of geographic visualisation for children and for adults alike. Unlike say an atlas or even anything web or tablet-based, a wall map draws attention and encourages exploration and I believe its accessibility is quite unique.
An increase in number and popularity of map-based board games, in particular those which travel around the world, such as ‘Risk!’, ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘Diplomacy’ and many more, and even the Early Learning Centre’s ‘travel the world game’, shows how powerful world geography is in a child’s mindset. With the possible inclusion or exception of a globe, I cannot think of any map that is as profoundly thought-provoking and as creatively useful to a young imagination as a wall map of the the world.
A recent overnight stay in my nephew’s bedroom reminded me of this but also reminded me how uncertain the ‘correct’ content should be thus causing considerable confusion for both the map’s creator and the viewer; in partiuclar when it comes to names and boundaries.
I recall representatives of the Turkish military stressing to me at the International Cartographic Conference in 2013 their unhappiness over the positioning of their national borders, particular the border with Greece through the sea and island regions, on the OS Wall Maps at the time.
I too had my own disgruntlements with our World Map product back then. I was confused by and questioned the reasoning behind the inconsistency with which we had named countries and other geographical areas which were often named by their English name but also sometimes by their internationally-recognised name, their native name (endonym) or other.
Like many of OS’ older and more traditional map products, it transpired that the cause was largely due to partial manual update and evolution over time, something we are trying to put right across other OS products with automated update via our multi-resolution database projects.
My feedback led to a complete revision of our own wall map, which is supposed to use a United Nations (UN)-based source of nomenclature for its names but firstly this is not decisive as can be seen from the UN names list, and it is not a problem unique to OS – it is a problem on any international map.
Returning to the map on the all of my nephew’s bedroom, this is Collins’ map, ‘The World’.
Firstly this is a fantastic map. But to highlight why the user might be confused: By far the majority of place or region names are in English and English-alone. But then you have disputed names such as the ‘Persian Gulf’ and the ‘Sea of Japan’ which have to be shown with their alternatives of ‘Arabian Gulf’ and ‘East Sea’. However, it then seems that the islands around Russia have also been treated with extra sensitivity. ‘New Siberia Islands’*, ‘Kuril Islands’ and even the ‘East Siberian Sea’ are all shown with their Russian equivalents in brackets. Yet when these are in western Roman alphabet and often the exact same name I am left wondering why?
Just to add to the confusion, Greenland is also ‘bracketised’ with its alternative name of ‘Kalaallit Nunaat’.
Whereas I am sure the folk at Collins have sound and legitimate reasons for all of these decisions, such a confusing set of naming conventions has confused me as a map-maker and I would assume is confusing to the general public and map reader – alebit admittedly more likely to confuse parents and teachers than be noticed by children.
Again, I am not blaming Collins, it is a problem existant in many wall maps and almost any international map. One to which there is no right or wrong answer. Collins do also offer a wonderful and far simpler version for small children as can be seen below.
Showing endonyms, the name of a place in its primary native language, may be seen as politically necessary but if you consider a pure endonym map (below), it is very interesting but as a view of the world it is pretty useless because hardly anybody can read more than a small portion of it!
Use of multiple languages and alphabets also leads to visual inconsistency and confusion. Imagine the map above without the English in brackets.
One possible suggestion for the Collins map would be to only show names in English. The clocks across the top of the map in each time zone combined with the primary use of English tells me that the map is aimed at a British audience. So perhaps the answer could be to use the dataset that I understand our own OS map used as its source in its original creation: The UK Government’s Foreign Office holds and maintains a database of officially UK-recognised, approved and preferred placenames for countries and major cities around the world.
And to think that we haven’t even discussed or debated the issue of projection! Global wall maps remain a debatable and sometimes controversial ‘hot potato’ in the cartographic world. But thankfully they also remain a source of inspiration and imagination for hundreds of millions of children around the world, just like my nephew Elliot.
*Chris: Should this not be New Siberian Islands?