Visit Almost Four Hundred Years of Mapping Inner Earth With this Virtual Map Exhibit

Elizabeth Borneman


Our Earth contains many mysteries, despite the incredibly number of people studying its different facets. From the sea to the forests to the skies, scientists, researchers, and other curious individuals spend their time and resources seeking to understand the beautiful planet we live on.

A recently ended map exhibit held at Boston Public Library, Beneath Our Feet, remains available online as a virtual exhibit.  This exhibit showed different theories and maps that have been created postulating what Earth’s interior looks like throughout history and showed evolution of our ideas of what lies beneath our feet.

When visitors entered the exhibit, they were shown a US Geological Survey map of North America that depicted how the topography of our continent has changed over time. This change is often prompted by geology and movement deep within the Earth’s core. The exhibit then splits off to describe the natural world and mankind’s impacts on the natural world as our methods for researching it have improved over time.

Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar who lives in the 1600s, was one of the first to imagine Earth’s core as molten fire. He and other scholars throughout history postulated what the interior of the Earth looked like, as we cannot physically see all that goes on beneath us. However, so much of what does go on beneath our feet has a major impact on what we build, where we live, and what the world around us looks like.

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Athanasius Kircher’s “Mundus Subterraneus,” c. 1665, Boston Public Library's Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.
Athanasius Kircher’s “Mundus Subterraneus,” c. 1665, Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

Kircher’s 1665 illustration of the world’s waterways being turned by a molten core in the center weren’t that far off from what scientists were able to discover about the composition of Earth’s interior using sonar, radar, and other imaging technologies. Sonar was used in 1969 to begin the study of plate tectonics and the movement of massive subsurface forces. Over time, technology has developed so that scientists can look at the different layers of the Earth, what they are composed of, and how they all work together to cause geologic change on the Earth’s surface in the form of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the movement of continental shelves.

The exhibit also dived into current issues surrounding oil, coal mining, and the environmental problems that have been documented as a result of these practices. The maps and information contained within the Beneath Our Feet exhibit will allow people to think about the greater changes our Earth has gone through and will go through in the future. Mankind’s impacts may not go all the way down to Earth’s molten core, but we need to have an understanding of what we are doing to the natural world around us.

The exhibit contains 70 maps, drawings, and archaeological artifacts, joining the other 200,000 maps and 5,000 atlases in the Boston Public Library. Beneath Our Feet was a temporary exhibit located at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center in the Boston Public Library that ended in March of 2018.  The exhibit lives on as a virtual walk-through online.   The online exhibit contains introductory texts with selected maps, a bibliography, and a virtual 3D exhibit that brings the visitor inside of the gallery.  Click and zoom to move around the exhibit space to view the maps and artifacts.

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.