A woman's ideas – open to the world

Library opening this weekend offers scholars and the public new insights on religious leader Mary Baker Eddy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When several thousand visitors walk through the glass doors of the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity during its official opening this weekend, they will get their first glimpse of one of the largest collections of papers by and about an American woman.

Among the estimated half-million documents are previously unpublished letters, notes, sermons, and speeches by the author of "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" and founder of The First Church of Christ, Scientist. The collection also includes about 9,000 objects and 9,000 photographs. Library officials say the material offers new insight into Mrs. Eddy's life and her impact as a late-19th-century author and thinker.

"There are so few women of that 19th-century period who have had their papers preserved," explains Lesley Pitts, the library's manager of archives. "So many were lost to history, because they weren't considered important. We're fortunate in having the whole story in one place."

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That place, at 200 Massachusetts Ave. in Boston's Back Bay, occupies four stories and 81,000 square feet in the Christian Science Publishing House, also home of The Christian Science Monitor. Stephen Danzansky, chief executive officer, calls the library "a new cultural institution for Boston," offering state-of-the-art exhibits and research facilities.

A dedication ceremony at noon tomorrow will include remarks by Virginia Harris, chairman of the library's board of trustees, followed by the première of "The Time for Thinkers Has Come," a composition for orchestra and choir written for the occasion by Boston composer Walter Robinson. An open house Saturday will feature an outdoor concert, "Boston Rhapsody," with music from a range of cultures. Sunday will mark the debut of a series called Living Ideas, with dramatic re-creations of moments from history.

A response to the public's interest

The library has its roots in three current trends, according to Mr. Danzansky.

First, he says, it comes at a time of great spiritual seeking and an "accelerating demand for spiritual resources." A recent Gallup poll found that 78 percent of Americans feel a need for spiritual growth, up from 58 percent in 1994.

Second, library officials see a growing interest in and curiosity about Eddy. Since 1998, a million and a half people in the US have viewed a traveling exhibit about her life.

Third, the library reflects a greater public demand for openness, he says, adding, "Institutions today cannot be closed if they want to be understood."

One realm where such openness is being called for is copyright law. A 1976 law stipulates that intellectual property created before 1978 and bequeathed to heirs must be published by Jan. 1, 2003. Otherwise it will enter the public domain.

"If you place papers in a library open to the public, with full access and the ability to make a copy, you've published," Danzansky says. The library extends the copyright date for Eddy's writings by 45 years, to 2047.

"Mary Baker Eddy's life as related by biographers has sort of taken two paths," he says. "One is a highly critical, muckraking, sensational path, and the other is a hagiographic, or idealized, version. What the library is saying is, here's the material. Mary Baker Eddy can be judged by her own words and what she said, rather than what somebody else said."

Exhibits also place her in the context of the 19th-century world in which she lived. "This new religious movement, Christian Science, founded by a woman, occurs in a period when women were making headway in a lot of arenas," says Ann Braude, director of the women's studies in religion program at Harvard Divinity School and an adviser to the library. Even so, she notes, "It was an extraordinary thing to do what Mary Baker Eddy did at a time when women were expected not to play public roles, particularly in the area of religion."

Design as invitation

Architecturally, the library blends old and new. Ann Beha, head of Ann Beha Architects in Boston, redesigned portions of the 1930s building to respect the character of the public spaces. These include the neoclassical lobby, known as the Hall of Ideas, and the Mapparium, a 30-foot- diameter stained-glass globe.

"Simply a workmanlike solution for this kind of building – perhaps a new kind of doors, perhaps a bigger sign – would never have been enough to support the library's fundamental intentions," Ms. Beha says.

For her, the major idea underpinning the design is invitation, beginning with the sweeping glass entrance. "The library represents an invitation to everyone. It's an offer to engage in ideas that are embedded in the building and exhibits."

Those exhibits represent a marriage between history and technology. "This is not going to be like walking into the 19th century," says Chet Manchester, creative director. "It's a story about today, about the themes and ideas that Mrs. Eddy cared deeply about."

Some displays use an audio or video presentation, others are computer-based and interactive. Mr. Manchester calls the approach "experiential exhibiting."

"It's not just words on a text panel," he says. "We wanted to present these ideas in a way that spoke to the many different ways people experience and learn."

The Quest Gallery features multimedia presentations with authors, leading thinkers, and others who talk about their interest in the spiritual dimension of life and health. The gallery also offers a historical overview of Eddy's explorations of medicine and theology.

Visitors to the Monitor Gallery, which explains the history and philosophy of the newspaper, can look through a glass wall into the renovated Monitor newsroom.

The most innovative exhibit sits in the center of the Hall of Ideas. Words and quotations bubble up from a fountain created by noted glass sculptor Howard Ben Tré. The words flow around the rim, spill onto the floor, and then move up the walls and re-form as full quotes.

The Mapparium, long a popular tourist attraction, has been enhanced with a sound and light presentation. It shows the world's boundaries as they existed when it was created in 1935. Special lighting can highlight various places on the globe. "It's a wonderful canvas on which to see the changes that have taken place in 70 years," Manchester says.

Through the end of the year, exhibits will spotlight Eddy's letters, manuscripts, copybooks, and scrapbooks, as well as her Bibles and other books, many of which bear her margin notes. As researchers and archivists become more familiar with the collection, Ms. Pitts says, displays will reflect other aspects of Eddy's ideas.

"The library's collection is not static," she adds. "It will grow over the years."

Most letters and many other papers have been scanned, enabling visitors to view color versions on computers.They can photocopy documents but cannot publish them without permission, since the materials are copyrighted.

The library, with 70 employees, exists as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, separate from The First Church of Christ, Scientist. It will stand on its own financially, Danzansky says. He adds that the library's $50 million cost covers an investment in the building and five years of operation. Some revenue will come from admission fees – $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. Other funds for public programs could come from corporations, foundations, and perhaps the government, through grants from agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts.

A 'rich reservoir'

Mrs. Harris, who is also chairman of the church's board of directors, sees the library as serving two functions. The first, she says, "is to enable spiritual seekers, historians, and anyone interested in the ideas or the life of Mary Baker Eddy to have this rich reservoir where they can come and explore those ideas."

She expects materials to be of particular interest to visitors who follow American history, theology or religion, women's studies, spiritual healing, journalism, and 19th-century medicine.

Its second function relates to the last part of the library's name: "for the Betterment of Humanity."

"We would hope that people's encounter with the ideas that fill this library will touch something in their thought that enables them to think bigger and better," Harris says. "We hope the library provides a venue for them to have a dialogue with the great ideas that leave us all better, and the world better.

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