Touching history

The Perkins Globe started as a teaching tool for students like Helen Keller, and 180 years later people still want to touch it

A birds-eye view of the globe, with a student touching it.

The Perkins Globe is touched by thousands of people each year, from students and staff to visitors. These have included famous figures like Charles Dickens, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy and former President George H.W. Bush.

February 6, 2017

When Helen Keller visited Perkins School for the Blind in 1956, her first question was, “Do you still have the globe?”

The giant tactile globe was the first thing she’d touched seven decades earlier when she first arrived at Perkins as a student, just 8 years old and far from her family. Running her fingers over the borders of her home state of Alabama made her feel a little closer to home.

Today, the opportunity to touch a shared piece of history – one that would be stored behind glass in most other institutions – is irresistible to thousands of visitors who come to Perkins each year. As they enter the Howe Building at the center of campus and walk through the Perkins Museum, the iconic Perkins Globe comes prominently into view. 

“People are excited to make that personal connection,” said Perkins tour guide Kevin Hartigan. “It really is the most important artifact in the museum.”

Built in 1837 by Steven Preston Ruggles, the globe is 13 feet in circumference and made from over 700 pieces of wood. It’s painted in bright colors and supported by a wooden frame that includes longitude and latitude markers in braille, as well as zodiac signs.

It’s “possibly the oldest three-dimensional relief globe made in the United States,” according to a 1957 article in The Geographical Review.

The globe was built to allow Perkins students to tactilely learn about the Earth’s geography. Country borders and natural landmarks like mountains and rivers are raised so they can be identified by touch. For students with low vision, the oceans are blue, while countries are painted red, brown, green and other colors.

However, as the decades passed, many of the borders and names of countries became outdated. The United States, for example, had to be repainted because it initially only extended as far west as the Mississippi River. Some countries had as many as 12 layers of paint, Harvard researchers discovered when they studied the globe in 1982.

“The amount of change the globe has gone through is just fascinating,” said Perkins Archivist Jen Hale. “This was something that was constantly being altered.”

Generations of students’ and visitors’ hands touching the globe also left their mark.

The globe has been restored twice, in 1940 and 2004. Though for many years it could be spun in any direction – and students took full advantage of that – it had to be secured in place between the renovations for its structural integrity. To further preserve it, the 2004 restoration company recommended that the globe be placed behind glass.

But that would have defeated its purpose. “It was made to be touched,” said Hartigan.

Keller isn’t the only famous figure to put her hands on the globe. Others include author Charles Dickens, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy and former President George H.W. Bush.

But Keller remains the big draw.

“I can’t describe how many 7-year-old girls come to Perkins because they’ve read a picture book about Helen Keller and fallen in love,” Hartigan said. “When I tell them she studied geography on (the globe) and I have them touch Alabama, you can see the goosebumps on their arms. That’s the best part of my job.”

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