A Real-Life Total Perspective Vortex: The Mapparium

April 14, 2013 — If the game is, “Religion with the coolest stuff gets my soul,” then Christian Science should certainly throw its Mapparium into the kitty.

Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879. It’s a variant of Christianity that basically views Bible teachings through the filter of her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. According to Wikipedia, there are some 100,000 members of the Church of Christ, Scientist, spread among some 1,700 churches across the world.

That’s all I got about that. I’m copping out on backstory to focus on an 80-year-old, three-story, stained-glass globe that you can walk inside. They call it the Mapparium.

This wonder of a world is at the Mary Baker Eddy Library at 200 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, right at the edge of Christian Science Plaza. The plaza is a complex of Christian Science buildings that includes its 120-year-old Mother Church. I probably should have spent time exploring the whole place, but the world waits for no man.

The history of the Mapparium is actually pretty mundane for such a not-mundane object. In the early 1930s, the architect hired to design the library asked the organization, “Hey, why don’t I throw in a room-sized glass planet?”

Christian Scientists: “OK.”

Thus began the painstaking work of heating more than 600 large glass panels to various temperatures of around 1,000 degrees, depending on the color of the glass, and then inserting them into the massive bronze framework with what I assume were extremely sweaty hands.

Now, I walk into religious institutions all the time to search out oddity—the Purgatory Museum, Cumorah, Pradbhupada's Palace of Gold— and I always feel a bit weird doing it. Part of that is because I grew up in a hardcore sect of Christianity that considered anything not it a cult. So anytime I tread somebody else’s holy ground, I feel naughty. It’s the same feeling that I still get walking into a liquor store (that’s why I run into those).

Mostly, though, it’s because I’m highly aware that I’m just there to gawk in a place of intensely held belief.

But the Mary Baker Eddy Library, like most libraries, is meant for guests. You can visit for free, and it even has a gift shop. Gift shops are the best welcome mats. You can also pay a small admission to see the secular glory that is the Mapparium.

We waited in the Hall of Ideas for the tour to begin. The hall is an elegant, two-story corridor of marble and brass. The centerpiece is a large, flat fountain with quotes from famous thinkers projected onto its placid surface that then dissolve and trickle into individual words and letters. The same effect was carried out around the rest of the hall by a projection system in the ceiling.

The tour runs every 20 minutes or so. When ours was called, we exited the hall through a bronze portal, and just a few steps later found ourselves at a closed door, behind which was promised the world. There were about fifteen of us, and our guide gave us a little preamble that included a “no pictures” caveat that he explained was due to copyright reasons.

Sounds weird, but it was the exact same thing told us before we entered the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican a couple of years back. God is serious about art, man.

Then he opened a door, and we stepped inside the globe.

The Mapparium is a full sphere that stretched above, below, and beside us in an aurora of blue ocean that gave the space somewhat of a bathysphere effect. The landmasses were color-coded by country in a small spectrum of hues that did little to counteract the blue glow.

Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, MA.

Our feet rested, somewhat unsteadily, on a narrow, 30-foot-long glass bridge that spanned the diameter of the sphere. The bridge was covered with a strip of carpet that seemed to be in place more to protect the bridge than to buffer visitor vertigo. 

My overall impression of it was that it seemed like some kind of futuristic meditation chamber or antique observatory. I know that it doesn’t make sense that it could seem like both, but I learned long ago that there’s an inverse relationship between coolness and rationality.

It was a bit smaller than I was expecting based on the fish-eye lens pictures I’d seen on the web, but nonetheless big and spectacular. The panels were lighted from behind and, after a short spiel from the guide, the lights were turned off and areas of the globe were lighted sequentially in parallel with a short recorded audio program.

The map shows the world as it was in 1935, when the Mapparium was built. So the USSR was a massive unified splotch of red. Africa bore a few names that have been changed multiple times over the years. I squinted to find “Here be Monsters” in the oceans but didn’t see any. I think Rand McNally stopped doing that in the 1920s.

They say that one of the more fascinating features of the Mapparium is the accurate sense it gives you about the world. Obviously, globes are closer to the reality than flat maps, but with typical globes we’re still exterior to them, which distorts the perspective and magnifies whatever small section of it is facing you.

Standing in the center of the globe, you’re equidistant from all points, revealing such rarely cognized facts about that planet as how most of our dry land is in the northern hemisphere. Or that New York and Beijing are at the exact same latitude. Or the really big fact that we’re freaking tiny and matter little in such a giant world. So it’s like a real-life version of Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex.

Another, unplanned feature is that it’s a whisper chamber. The slightest vocalization carries to everyone’s ears.  The guide made specific pains to warn us about this (along with not dropping stuff over the side because he couldn't promise when they’d be able to retrieve it). I assume it was so that if you’re not the type to be impressed by three stories of painted glass and the type to say so under your breath, then you won’t embarrass yourself and bring down the whole party.

Of course, I tested it out and it sounded like I was speaking in stereo, or as the website puts it much better, “like you’re speaking into your own ears.”

Sooner than we liked, we were ushered out of the Mapparium so that the next tour could enter. However, admission also includes the Quest Gallery, which can be found upstairs. There, you’ll find many artifacts connected with Mary Baker Eddy arranged cleanly, elegantly, and glassily. 

At the time we visited, the place was about to close, so I didn’t get any time to really analyze these pieces of her life in too much detail. But that’s balanced by the fact that, in the past, I have been able to analyze a piece of her death quite thoroughly, on my visit to Mount Auburn Cemetery where she is buried. I’ve included some pics.

I like ending articles with death. Much more true-to-life.