This year we decide to spend Thanksgiving in Boston. The Floridians don’t react to this idea with the same incredulity that they did to Thanksgiving in Houston or going to Arizona in July, but we are warned that, in contrast to the fine weather in Florida, it will be cold at this time of year. The chilly fresh air, however, together with the autumnal colours in the parks and the historic landmarks of the city, invoke fond memories of London (*sigh*). We visit many of the main tourist destinations, such as Faneuil Hall, the Boston Tea Party Ship and the hugely undersold Museum of Fine Art, but for us the highlights of the trip are the Mapparium and the Blue Man Group.
Hidden in the Mary Baker Eddy Library at The Christian Science Plaza, the Mapparium is an illuminated, stained glass globe 30ft in diameter that you can walk through via an elevated bridge. You enter through the Indian Ocean and exit through the South Pacific:
Built in 1935 to celebrate the success of the Christian Science Monitor and intended to outdo the gigantic spinning globe of the New York Daily News, it’s one of those vanity projects that it’s hard to imagine being approved these days.
There are three striking aspects to this exhibit. The first is the geographical perspective. It’s widely known that world maps give a distorted view of the relative size and position of countries. It’s also commonly assumed that a globe solves this problem, but when viewed from the outside, different parts of the globe are at different distances from the eye and so are distorted by perspective. From the centre of the globe, however, the eye is the same distance from every point of the map. It can therefore be argued that this is the only place in the Universe where you can look at the surface of the world without distortion. Of course if you were actually in the middle of the Earth and able look out, you’d see a concave reversal of this image because you’d be looking from underneath the land masses, but let’s not complicate matters.
What I see very much reminds me of (and perhaps vindicates) the controversial Peters Projection world map that is area-accurate. Most land is north of the Equator, Africa is much bigger than you think it is, and North America, Europe and Asia cluster around the North Pole.
Then there is the historical and political perspective of a world map designed in 1935. The USSR looms large, and while you’ll find Siam, French Indochina and Italian East Africa, there is no Indonesia, Vietnam or Israel.
Finally, the acoustics are the most unsettling I’ve ever experienced, reportedly taking even the designers by surprise. As a child I was never convinced by the so-called ‘Whispering Gallery’ at St Paul’s Cathedral, but because this is a full sphere of glass which doesn’t absorb sound at all, the effect is extraordinarily clear. If you stand in the middle of the bridge and speak, you hear your own voice in surround sound. If two people whisper from opposite ends of the bridge, they hear each other as if they are muttering directly in each other’s ears. We’re part of a group and the various snippets of disembodied voices are as fleeting as they are startling. I feel like I’m being buzzed by invisible, supernatural entities, albeit ones that only wish to make inoffensive chitchat about our surroundings. So all the fun of auditory hallucinations then, with none of the distressing psychosis that usually accompanies them; that has to be worth the $6 entry fee alone. Oh, and the whole experience lasts less than half an hour, which is ideal for those of us lacking in time or attention span.
Blue Man Group
This is a show that markets itself as ‘modern vaudeville’, with its projected animation, LED screens, old-fashioned comedy and 90s music, presented by a trio of muted, bald performance artists painted a gooey blue.
I have only been obliquely aware of this show before now, but since its inception in 1997 it quickly became an established commercial success in Las Vegas, further expanding to employ 700 people and playing to a cumulative audience in excess of 12 million people, with ongoing shows in nine cities, including Boston’s Charles Playhouse.
There is quite a bit of pseudo-intellectual nonsense in online editorials about how profound and relevant the show is to the information and communication age, which I think is ultimately responsible for the swathe of mixed reviews from disappointed theatre-goers who were expecting some kind of life-changing enlightenment from the evening. We went in with no such expectation and found it to be an hour and 45 minutes of very family-friendly entertainment. With no spoken lines, there’s plenty of silly slaptstick to delight the kids, with enough clever observations about modern technology to keep the adults amused. I don’t want to give away much more about the show to anyone that hasn’t seen it yet, but suffice to say that earplugs are available on your way in and plastic ponchos are handed out to those in the first few rows.Flickr Image credits Mapparium: Jassy-50; Blue Man Group: qnibert00