Atlases are thought of as mighty things: large literary volumes that are even larger in subject. The word comes from the name of one of the Titans, after all. In Greek mythology, Atlas was the one who supported the heavens on his shoulders.
Atlases, the cartographic ones, tend to show great swathes of territory: regions, continents, the entire planet. Not always, though: City atlases are much narrower geographically. That doesn’t mean they’re any less informative or impressive. If anything, the smaller amount of territory they survey means city atlases can be that much more detailed — and involving.
That’s certainly the case with “Building Blocks: Boston Stories From Urban Atlases,” a new exhibition at the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library. It runs through Aug. 19. The Leventhal center’s Laura Lee Schmidt is the curator. Another new show, “Becoming Boston: Eight Moments in the Geography of a Changing City,” has an open-ended run. It’s been curated by Leventhal president and chief curator Garrett Dash Nelson.
“Building Blocks” (the title is descriptive as well as figurative) begins with a nifty idea. There’s a computer at the front desk where you can type in a Boston address and see its presentation in an old city atlas. It’s what the Leventhal calls its atlascope app. You don’t need to be at the BPL to use it. Go online at atlascope.leventhalmap.org/#. This is interactivity very nicely done, as well as a reminder of the extent to which these renderings of the past that are on display, the city as was, directly relate to visitors’ present, the city as is.
An even better reminder, perhaps, comes at the other end of the gallery. On the floor is an enlarged representation of plate 23 from G. W. Bromley & Co.’s Boston atlas, from 1922. This particular plate shows Back Bay and the South End. Basically, anywhere on the map is within a 10-minute walk of the BPL. The front desk has copies of the map for visitors who want to go outside and follow it. This is interactivity of a different sort, happily low tech — shoe leather! — and all the more imaginative and engaging for being so.
There are other imaginative touches throughout the exhibition, such as the presence of illustrative vintage photographs and the use of a a single person’s life as a kind of connective thread within the show. Florida Ruffin Ridley (1861-1943) was one of the first Black teachers in Boston as well as a suffragist and civil rights activist. In 2020, Brookline renamed a school in her honor.
Ridley’s prominence is a reminder that the atlases are about people no less than property, about who as well as where and what. Some of the what-ness is fascinating. In 1861, for example, Charles E. Pinney produced the first insurance atlas of the city. Along with the information one might expect — addresses, distances, ownership — it notes the presence of skylights and boilers, the number of stories (the height kind, though the other kind is implicit there, too), and which buildings were deemed fire risks.
The pertinence of that last detail would become all too clear a little more than a decade later, with the Great Fire of 1872. The fire gets its own display, as do Revere Beach, Roxbury Crossing, Boston’s two cycloramas (hence the Cyclorama Building, in the South End), the African Meeting House, Columbus Avenue Playground, and Boston’s smallpox hospitals.
As its subtitle indicates, “Becoming Boston” focuses on “Eight Moments.” They range from the 17th century, with “A mapp of New England,” published in 1675, to, in effect, the future, since the final section is called “Making Tomorrow’s City Together.”
Each section has two items as part of a glassed-in display. Highlights include an 1879 bird’s-eye view of East Boston, sponsored by Cunard, the British shipping firm (yes, already there was such a thing as the commercial tie-in), and a 1905 panorama of Boston and environs, looking west from Boston Harbor. They’re as visually appealing as they are informative.
Or they are depending on the viewer’s angle. An especially bright bulb is used in each display case to illuminate the contents. The bulbs achieve that purpose quite well. Unfortunately, for those not looking directly at the case but trying to read the wall text, which is situated between each display, the light cast is almost blinding. Tweaking would be beneficial.
So would a little proofreading. In “Building Blocks,” there’s a reference to patients “inflicted with smallpox.” Unless biological warfare was being practiced, presumably “infected” is the verb intended. And the “Moments” section devoted to the Revolutionary era refers to “the British siege of the city.” Granted, geography is different from history, but the actual situation was just the opposite. The British were besieged in Boston. Legend has it that when the redcoats surrendered at Yorktown some years later, their military band played “The World Turned Upside Down.” Here we find Boston turned inside out.
BUILDING BLOCKS: Boston Stories From Urban Atlases
BECOMING BOSTON: Eight Moments in the Geography of a Changing City
At Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, Copley Square, through Aug. 19 and with no closing date, respectively. 617-859-2387, www.leventhalmap.org.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.