The Mapparium

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Image courtesy of the MBE Library

by Lily Bui / @dangerbui

It’s 1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt is president. The U.S. population is approximately 127 million. A family’s annual income is about $1,500. Babe Ruth retires from baseball. And the Mapparium opens to the public.

The Mapparium is a three-story map of the world housed in the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston and designed by architect Chester Lindsay Churchill. The word “Mapparium” comes from two Latin words, mappa, meaning “map” and arium, meaning “a place for.”

It’s almost impossible to look at the Mapparium without realizing the unique potential of maps as storytelling devices. Not only is the map a projection of the world in 1935; it’s also semblance of how people perceived the world during a time that was incredibly different from ours. Beyond strict cartography, the Mapparium is contextualized by the history and philosophical–even political–ideals that brought it into existence.

Let us begin at the beginning.

Although a surprisingly paltry amount of information about the architect Chester Lindsay Churchill exists, we do know that he was commissioned by the Mary Eddy Baker Library to construct the Mapparium. Along with the library’s board, Churchill recognized that the map’s existence would fill an important need–that of giving the public access to an accurate world map.

In a letter written on August 15, 1935, after the Mapparium is completed, Churchill reflects:

“The next step to achieve was to project mathematically the map of the world on a surface corresponding to that of the earth which encompassed the observer rather than receded the observer.”

This passage alludes to the design of a 12-ft bronze sculpture of the world in the New York Daily News office circa 1930. Churchill felt that most globes inherently place observers on the outside. He wanted something different, something more immersive. So he designed the Mapparium for people to be able to walk through it. The idea behind this is to enable people to stand together and look at the world in relation to one another.

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The globe that inspired the Mapparium from the NY Daily News lobby, 1940 (Wikimedia)

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Blueprints of the original map (MBE Library)

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Chester Lindsay Churchill, c. 1940 (MBE Library)

Construction 

Each grid component of the map was fired by a glass kiln, painted individually, and shipped from New York to Boston to be assembled. Rand McNally in Chicago prepared the map drawings, and Rambusch Decorating Co. in New York fired and painted the panels.

Every color on the map had to be baked separately, so panels with multiple colors took the longest to make. When the Mapparium first opened to the public, it was backlit with over three hundred 40- & 60-watt light bulbs. (They’ve since been swapped out with more sustainable LED lights.)

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Examples of pigments used for the map (MBE Library)

Churchill intended the map to be updated as international borders changed. For instance, Persia changed its named to Iran during the construction of the map, so the panel containing Iran had to be edited and was the last one to be installed. Although Churchill kept change in mind during the conceptualization of its design, the Mapparium’s construction was halted by the start of World War II in 1939 and postponed indefinitely.

Acoustics

Because the map is spherical and made of glass, the surface naturally reflects sound instead of absorbing it. There are two distinct acoustic tricks that you can achieve while inside the Mapparium:

[1] One person can hear his or her voice in surround sound if speaking while standing in the center of the sphere.

[2] Two people on opposite ends of the walkway can hear each others whisper as if they were standing right next to each other. This is called the “whispering gallery” effect, caused by sound traveling along all sides of the sphere and arriving simultaneously on the other side.

Brown Innovations in Boston designed the sound system for the Mapparium’s interactive exhibit, setting up four different speakers that direct sound upward with the intention to have it wash back downward toward the individual.

Some numbers

  • 1 inch = 22 miles on the map.
  • The radius of the sphere is 15 feet.
  • In 1935, the Mapparium cost $52,400 to build. Today, that translates to approximately $855,000.
  • Longitude and latitude are represented at 10 degree intervals on the map.
  • Twenty-two clocks can be found along the equator of the map to represent various time zones. At one point, these clocks were synced with a master clock by a magnetic pulse, although they are no longer functional.

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Map key (MBE Library)

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One of the clocks on the map (MBE Library)

Historical trivia

Because the Mapparium’s construction was postponed by WWII up until the 1960s, the MBE Library’s board decided that the map served better as a historical artifact rather than an up-to-date map of the world. If you look, you can spot a handful of significant differences from 1935 vs. what you would see on a world map today:

  • Israel is not on the map, as it was established in 1948 after the Mapparium was constructed.
  • Alaska and Hawaii were still U.S. territories and had yet to become states.
  • Korea was part of Japan and called Chosen.
  • Germany is split in two by Poland.

While Chester Lindsay Churchill may not have achieved exactly what he initially set out to build, the Mapparium still stands today. Any curious visitor who wanders into the sphere will certainly gain a remarkable, unique view of the world. The map may not tell us where we’re going or where we are, but just as important is this: like any good map, it gives us a deeper understanding of where we came from.

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