“You get to walk into the middle of the world! You can be inside a map! This is basically all I’ve ever wanted out of life,” I said with only slight exaggeration. Luckily, my friend Mike agreed that a three-story glass globe sounded like a good tourist destination, so I put the Mapparium on the itinerary for when I visited him in Boston over Labor Day weekend in 2010.The Mapparium is housed in the Mary Baker Eddy Library, part of a collection of buildings that make up the Christian Science Plaza in Boston. They only allow visitors in small groups at scheduled times, so you buy a ticket and mill about til your appointment. The lobby is set up with large posters depicting the highlights of Mary Baker Eddy’s life and the early years of the religion, such as charity projects and the Christian Science Monitor. The posters don’t dwell on the specifics of the religion, such as the basic tenet that the material world doesn’t exist and we are all spiritual beings. Funny that a religion with such beliefs erected a permanent tribute to the physical earth. Once your group is called, you gather around a tour guide, who does a little intro and then asks you to be super quiet when you enter the Mapparium. This is because the acoustics of the room are like those giant whisper dishes in science museums; you can stand at one end of the room and whisper something, and someone standing at the other end will hear it as if you whispered right in their ear. This means only one person talks at a time. The tour guide talks a bit about the construction of the Mapparium–the 608 panes of glass, the hand-painted maps–and then turns on a recorded message about what the maps mean.
The Mapparium was finished in 1935 and has been refinished but not changed since then. This means that the map shows the political world as it was pre-World War II. Many countries that don’t exist anymore appear: the Soviet Union, the Belgian Congo, French Indochina. Many countries that now exist didn’t then: Israel, all the ‘stan countries. The recorded message man talks about the decision to keep the map as an historical document, rather than updating it when wars and politics redraw the borders.
And then the propaganda sets in. The recorded guide describes the story of modern history as one of humanitarian triumph and progress. I’m not against this idea on principle (although a healthy dash of “and things are messed up too” would help). But the Mapparium takes a pretty selective view of what that story arc looks like; the disembodied voice talks about how democracy saved the world, and the map lights up with democratic countries. Then we hear that some countries still need to join the democracy train, and the map lights up behind those benighted countries. Democratic countries: the United States, the UK, and… Iraq. Non-democratic countries: North Korea, China, and… France. Hmm.
But the slightly silly presentation aside, it’s awesome to be inside the Mapparium. Rather than being in the center of the earth looking out, we’re looking at a globe turned inside-out. The colors are deep and the writing is a little like calligraphy. And it’s endlessly fascinating to look at the changeable borders from eighty years ago. Being literally surrounded by the huge, colorful world was just as lovely and strange as I’d hoped. If you’re in Boston, I recommend it!