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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Unique New York

I’ve been to New York City before. But just because you’ve gone once, twice, or even twenty times, it doesn’t mean you’ve been to New York City. Every single trip I’ve taken has been entirely different from the last, and that’s because this urban jungle lends itself to everything from serendipitous encounters to the inexplicably bizarre–the kind of magical realism you can only hope to encounter in a Gabriel Garcia Lorca novel.

Joe and I saw this clip on Louie CK one night. We immediately decided we had to go. (Well, we decided immediately but didn’t really get around to doing it until 3 months later.) The episode (Season 3, Episode 4) is a love poem to New York told through a lens tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, thanks to the tactful eye of Susan E. Morse, Woody Allen’s go-to editor. Among so many other things in Manhattan, the episode features Russ & Daughters, an appetizing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The word “appetizer” comes from the Latin word appete, which means “to desire.” At Russ & Daughters, one can very easily deduce its colloquial meaning: “the foods one eats with bagels.” Even further, there simply isn’t a better word to describe what you feel upon entering the store. It’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the belly. We ordered almost everything you can see in the clip: pickled herring, bagels with lox, and the chocolate babka. (It was all mind blowing.)

…And then there was the Birdman. Maybe you’ve heard of him. We definitely hadn’t before last night. But let me back up a bit.

After dinner, I had a specific musical craving for Black Sabbath (you know, to wash down the pickled herring.) Naturally, Joe and I wandered into the nearest record store that we could find–Rainbow Music.

Imagine, if you will, a pack rat’s paradise. A sizeable space made small by tons and tons of stuff. In this case, it was music. We squeeze into a narrow aisle of CDs stacked up to eye level–and then some. There’s barely enough room to walk through it face forward; you have to sidestep your way through to browse the CD titles. A short, older man approaches us and asks us what we’re looking for. Although I have no idea how, he knew exactly where the Black Sabbath CDs were and pulled them for us within seconds.

“They call me the Birdman,” he says, without us asking. “They made a documentary a few years back. It won some awards. People come in here asking me for pictures and stuff.” At this point, I’m hooked. There was no question that [1] we would stay and chat and [2] we would buy something. Talk about sales strategy.

The Birdman, a 73-year old Wall Street veteran who speaks with a thick New York accent, runs Rainbow Music as a sort of passion project. Having cashed out on his hedge funds long ago, he says the store isn’t about the money. (I asked him for any helpful trading tips, but like any good poker player, he kept his cards close to his chest. However, he did let slip his endorsement for pharmaceuticals and food stocks.) Despite not actively researching what’s trending these days, he’s managed to intuit what “the kids” are listening to. In the organized mess of an inventory, I spotted Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa within easy reach. Somehow, he even pinned me for a Django Reinhardt fan within two minutes.

(I realize that the organization of the CDs could probably just come from people sorting through them and setting them down closer to the front of the stacks. For my own purposes, I may just stick with my theory that he’s a musical clairvoyant.)

“This is all going away next month,” he tells us while ringing up our CDs (by hand and on paper, no less). I can’t tell whether there’s sadness in his voice or if I just imagined it. “We’re moving all of it to the Internet. You sell things a lot faster there.” We learn that the building landlord is leasing the store space out for something else, so the Birdman’s son is going to help open an online store–even though he doesn’t currently own a computer. They’ve been there for 14 years.

After stepping back out into the litany of Manhattan on a Friday night, it’s hard to tell whether being in the store was like stepping back in time or if it was just a crude affirmation of the current times. Even though Lower East Side counterculture  warrants the existence and perpetuation of vintage music stores like Rainbow, the Birdman has decided to resign from a brick-and-mortar setup to sell his stuff using digital means. I can’t imagine the buying experience being the same without meeting the Birdman face to face, and goodness knows I wouldn’t have paid $23 for a used CD if he hadn’t chatted us up.

The Birdman from Jessie Auritt on Vimeo.

Joe and I drove back to Boston blasting Black Sabbath, full of good food and good stories. I know that the next time I trek to New York, it’ll be completely different and probably even stranger than the last. I can’t wait.

Sometimes, you don’t fully process things until you’ve let yourself go through them. I find myself writing this in medias res, but I can’t help jotting something down. Something in me needs to speak.

Yesterday was our last show on the east coast tour. We made our last stop Chloe’s Coffee in Gaithersburg for a handful of reasons, the main one being that when I lived in Maryland, I was a regular at Chloe’s. It was a musical home base for me in many ways. Not too long ago, I was just a girl with a uke who showed up at open mics on Wednesday evenings to play for whomever might listen. To see the room filled with familiar faces and new faces (for essentially the same songs and same silly girl with a uke) warmed me to the core.

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I’m at the cusp of the ending and beginning of many things. As far as endings go, I know that this will be the last tour that we do for ‘Daydream at Midnight,’ an album that still reflects such a huge part of me, though almost two years have passed since I first wrote the songs. It’s the end of being on the road for the month; I finally get to go home to my room, my car, my gym, my family and friends.

As for beginnings, I’m getting ready to release ‘Age of Exploration,’ an album that speaks for much of my life since the first album and beyond. Also, while I was away, I received the news that I was accepted to an internship in Chicago, IL. That means I’ll be moving to a brand new city in fewer than three weeks! Don’t worry—I’ll be making music indefinitely, so you can quell your fears of radio silence from my channels.

Life is one incredibly crazy journey, and if there is one thing that I have learned, it’s that the people I’ve met have been my favorite stops along the way. The cities that I’ve visited would have been empty experiences if it weren’t for the laughs, meals, conversations, walks, cartwheels, and photos I’ve shared with new and old friends.

Mind vs. Heart

Logic vs. Intuition

Art vs. Science

On the road, I realized that these forces in particular constantly collide inside me, but I’ve come to learn that life is most beautiful when they work in tandem. After all, both sides have an inherent desire to pursue, discover, and understand the Truth. A couple years back in this blog, I wrote, “Reason over passion and temperance over both.” Now, after living a little more of life, I’d like to iterate that perhaps reason and passion can co-exist, with temperance as a sort of referee.

In this ongoing pursuit of Truth, I know that I will continue to find myself along the way. We’re changing all the time, yet we never really change at all. Funny, isn’t it?

On crossroads

I stand by what I said before: “home” is as much a physical place as it is a feeling, a relationship with things and people around you. I’ve found that my definition of home evolves through time. It’s fickle, sometimes stubborn. Malleable.

This east coast tour is quite special to me on a personal level — not just because it’s our first one as a band but also because it takes us through cities that hold a special place in my heart. I’ve spent my fair share of time in Boston with family and dear friends. My love affair with New York is one that never ceases to flicker because of the plethora of things the city has to offer. Washington, D.C. begat my first-ever solo album and was the springboard for my musical life. The east coast has been a second home to me.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to reconcile the rift between east and west and have since then given up on trying to find a happy medium. I decided that I am the medium because of how much I love both places. I’ll never be able to give up perennial sunshine, idyllic coasts, or flip flops. Simultaneously, I’ll never fall out of love with skyscrapers, city lights, and the litany of large crowds. I love my TV shows and my NPR podcasts. I’ll take my ComiCon and my museum lectures.  I’ll take my shopping sprees and my library splurges. At this point in my life, I realize that crossroads are the norm and not the exception. I’m perfectly content with that. I’m content with being who I am and everything (and everyone) that has led me to learn who that is.

The Dreamers and I played our first show in New York last night at Caffe Vivaldi. In a big way, this was a dream come true. A little less than two years ago, I was writing songs in an empty room on a hardwood floor, diffidently speculating, “What would it be like to play New York City with my own band, on tour?”

Last night, I answered that question for myself: it feels incredible.

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Boston, you came at a good time. Just when I was lamenting the fact that I might not experience a “real” winter (first world problem, I know), this Boston trip comes along and brings temperatures in the 30s, Dunkin Donuts, cannolis, bare trees, and New England clam chowder (in New England). Ah, chilly bliss.

The show at Boston College was tons of fun, and I had fun meeting everyone after the show as well. Boston College’s VSA did a great job decorating the Vandy Cabaret Room. Wish I had taken pictures while I was there >_<, but I’ll wait for them to be posted on Facebook to steal for a blog post. Can’t wait to come back for our April show!

The best part was hanging out with old friends, meeting new ones, (awkwardly) saying the wrong name of one on stage, wreaking silliness and havoc in the city, meeting up with an old junior high school friend, taking the wrong T train (twice), hanging out with family, teaching my niece to play ukulele, and so much more to come this week.

I feel warm and filled with love (and food). Even though the holidays can sometimes feel like a hyperbolic campaign for capitalism, I feel rich in friends and memories this season.