Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leventhal Map Center & Mapparium

(Many thanks to geographer/photographer Ashley Costa for all of the photos in this article, with one exception, as noted.)

The Geography Department's EarthView Program had last Friday "off" because of the AAG meeting, and although Dr. Domingo was in New York City that day, this left others on the team with an unscheduled day. Rather than sitting at home eating bonbons, we decided to spend a day learning about maps and globes, instead of teaching about them. (The world is a big place, so geographers are never done learning!)
Several students, friends, and family members took advantage of the opening in our schedule to visit two amazing geographic resources located in the Back Bay area of Boston. We went first to the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library and then to the Mapparium in the Mary Baker Eddy Library at the Christian Science Monitor headquarters.

This was a perfect outing for February Vacation Week. (Note to out-of-state readers: Massachusetts schools get an entire week off for Presidents Day. And another week in April for the Battle of Lexington and Concord.)
Dr. Debra Block, the Leventhal Center's Education Director, mentioned two ways that maps change. Either what we know about places changes, or the places themselves change. The Center's extensive collection of Boston maps from the earliest to the most modern illustrate the latter. The land on which the museum is situated, in fact, was in or near the water at the time this 1722 map was made.

Many of the Center's other early maps illustrate the latter point, and the long span of time required to learn the geography of some places. The part of the Amazon where I did my dissertation research in 1996 is almost unfindable on some early maps. The area is shown as "unexplored" on a ca. 1885 map in my office; on this earlier map, it is "little known." Rondonia, in fact, is little known and even less understood, even today!

It is nice to have a cartography course back in our department, and to see how enthusiastic our students have become on the subject. In addition to many grown-up tomes on the subject, we found an excellent children's book about a librarian who made the most profound contribution of all time to the field of cartography. The library liaison to geography at BSU, Pam Hayes-Bohanan, has written a nice review of the children's biography of Eratosthenes, The Librarian Who Measured the Earth.

When we first started Project EarthView, we got a call from the Mapparium about possible collaborations. That staff person left the organization soon after and we have not yet reconnected, but we see a lot of potential for collaboration, as these two giant globes complement each other beautifully. One is stained glass and the other is fabric; one is fixed in place and the other highly portable; one is political and the other physical. Even more interesting, the political geography of the Mapparium is frozen in time in the 1930s, so it provides rich lessons in historical geography and the geographies of colonialism.

In addition, each globe has interesting acoustics, though the effects are much more impressive -- and better documented -- in the Mapparium than in EarthView.

PHOTO: John Nordell, Christian Science Monitor
The main advantage of EarthView is that it can be taken to audiences anywhere that a tall ceiling can be found, so it might contribute to a traveling counterpart of the Mapparium program. It may also be possible, though, to set up EarthView in the beautiful and thought-provoking Hall of Ideas, which serves as a lobby for the Mapparium. The room is certainly large enough; the question is whether EarthView will fit around its hanging celestial spheres and the fountain in the center.

The "Ideas" in this hall are quotes and aphorisms projected onto the walls and floor, but only after appear to coalesce in the fountain.

Only a small contingent from the Geography Department was able to go on last Friday's outing. We look forward to many returns to both of these geographic treasures, and are starting to promote them as destinations for the university's many visiting scholars and dignitaries from around the world.

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