Tag: Museums

Astrolabes or Mariner’s Astrolabe—A Primer

Celebrations are afoot in Ontario celebrating 400 years of Francophone presence in the region. An important part of those celebrations is Samuel de Champlain’s exploration of Ontario and his early encounter with First Nations cultures. Simcoe.com has a short post on an exhibit that includes one of Champlain’s navigational instruments: “Historic astrolabe on display in Midland believed to have been Champlain’s.” Unfortunately, there’s a bit of confusion about this instrument, which is not in fact an astrolabe.

The Simcoe article faithfully reports information from the Sainte-Marie among the Hurons site. Unfortunately for the Sainte-Marie among the Hurons site, the Canadian Museum of History, which owns the instrument, contributed to the confusion. The museum lists the instrument, artifact #989.56.1, as an astrolabe (the museum also identifies its two other similar instruments—artifact #988.58.1 and artifact #LH994.142.1.2 as astrolabes). Buried toward the end of the museum’s description is a passing comment that identifies the instrument as a “mariner’s astrolabe.”

This passing comment is the only place that Champlain’s instrument in correctly identified as a “mariner’s astrolabe.” Although the two instruments share one possible function—determining the altitude of star (usually the sun or the pole star)—that’s it. The astrolabe combined observations and calculations, allowing the user to perform hundreds of operations. It was both a complex, technical device and a status symbol. The astrolabe has been compared to iPhones and more recently to a complex Rolex watch.

Astrolabes—pre-modern Rolex or iPhone, you decide.
Astrolabes—pre-modern Rolex or iPhone, you decide.

These comparisons capture the astrolabe’s status and superabundance of operations its operations. My pamphlet offers a handy introduction to the history, fabrication, and use of astrolabes. Hundreds of astrolabes survive.

The mariner’s astrolabe, by contrast, was utilitarian and singular in function. It allowed the user to determine the height of the polar star or the sun and, thus, the observer’s latitude. The instrument’s design reflects its utilitarian function. Mariner’s astrolabes are typically heavy, made from a thick brass ring (only the limb of astrolabe) to limit them from swinging too much as the ship’s deck swayed and rocked at sea. Some had a ring at the bottom of the instrument from which to hang a weight for added stability. The body of the instrument was often cut away to reduce, scholars claim, the effects of wind blowing on the body of the instrument.

On the left is a typical mariner’s astrolabe from ca. 1600, from the Museum of the History of Science, inventory #54253, found here. On the right is a planispheric astrolabe, usually called simply an astrolabe. This is an early 16th-century astrolabe from the Museum of the History of Science, inventory #52528, found here.
On the left is a typical mariner’s astrolabe from ca. 1600, from the Museum of the History of Science, inventory #54253, found here. On the right is a planispheric astrolabe, usually called simply an astrolabe. This is an early 16th-century astrolabe from the Museum of the History of Science, inventory #52528, found here.

The limb was typically graduated from 0°–90° in the upper quadrants, once again reflecting its use as a basic observational instrument. A simple alidade with rather crude sighting vanes was attached to the front of the instrument. At night the navigator would look through the holes in the alidade to align them with the pole star. Then he could read the altitude of the star from the graduation on the limb, which altitude was, roughly, his latitude. If he wanted to know his latitude during the day, at noon he rotated the alidade until the sun shown down through the holes in the vanes (he would not look at the sun for obvious reasons). He read the sun’s altitude from the scale on the limb, added or subtracted the earth’s tilt based on the day of the year, and subtracted the result from 90° to obtain his latitude.

The mariner’s astrolabe was a nautical/navigational tool. Although an astrolabe could have been used at sea as a navigational tool, it is unclear that they were. The instrument’s many functions and finely graduated limb would have made it unnecessarily complicated and difficult to use on the deck of moving ship. Moreover, the astrolabe’s cost and status make it seem unlikely that a mariner would have owned one when there were other, more specialized and less expensive instruments that did the same thing. There are a few illustrations of astrolabes being used on ships, but whether these are idealized or meant to reflect contemporary practice is unclear. The various instruction manuals that include canons on how to use astrolabes at sea, e.g., Johannes Stöffler’s Elucidatio fabricae ususque astrolabii (1513), do not demonstrate that they were so used. Authors of such manuals sought to distinguish themselves and demonstrate their expertise by cataloging as many possible uses for astrolabes as they could imagine, regardless of whether or not anybody actually used astrolabes in those ways.

Surely few people used an astrolabe to make the many observations Cosimo Bartoli cataloged in his Del modo di misurare (1564). Google has scanned it here.
Surely few people used an astrolabe to make the many observations Cosimo Bartoli cataloged in his Del modo di misurare (1564). Google has scanned it here.

Whereas traditional astrolabes were expensive, status symbols and were, therefore, collected and displayed, mariner‘s astrolabes were working tools. They were not, as a rule, collected or displayed. Consequently, much rarer today—only about 100 survive and most of those were recovered from shipwrecks (the Museum of the History of Science has a nice audio guide to the mariner’s astrolabe here).

Champlain’s instrument was graduated from 0°–90° in each quadrant. The body has largely been cut away. And on the front is a large alidade for sighting.

From this photo it is clear that Champlain’s instrument was a mariner’s astrolabe. From the Canadian Museum of History description—direct link to photo.
From this photo it is clear that Champlain’s instrument was a mariner’s astrolabe. From the Canadian Museum of History description—direct link to photo.

It is plausible that he brought a mariner’s astrolabe with him as he explored Canada. But the story of Champlain losing his instrument by a lake, it having lain there in the forest for 250 years before a 14-year-old boy found it, and its subsequent sale to different collectors, seems almost too good to be true. And the instrument’s remarkable shape, having spent more than two centuries in the dirt, is equally surprising.[1] Whether or not it was ever owned by Champlain, his instrument is clearly a mariner’s astrolabe.


  1. In its description of the instrument’s provenance, Canadian Museum of History expresses some but not much skepticism about the story (my emphasis):

    In May 1613, Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer-cartographer, travelled up the Ottawa River. To avoid the rapids, he chose a course through a number of small lakes near Cobden, Ontario. Champlain and his men were forced to portage and to climb over and under fallen logs at one particularly difficult point by Green Lake, now also known as Astrolabe Lake. It was here, according to several nineteenth-century authors, that Champlain lost his astrolabe. If this is correct, the astrolabe remained where it had fallen for 254 years. Eventually a 14-year-old farm boy named Edward Lee found it in 1867 while helping his father clear trees by Green Lake. Captain Cowley, who ran a steamboat on nearby Muskrat Lake, offered Lee ten dollars for the astrolabe. Lee never received the money nor saw the astrolabe again. Cowley sold the astrolabe to his employer, R.W. Cassels of Toronto, President of the Ottawa Forwarding Company. He in turn sold it to a New York collector, Samuel Hoffman. The astrolabe was willed to the New York Historical Society in 1942 where it remained until June 1989, when it was acquired by the Department of Communications for the Canadian Museum of Civilization. This astrolabe is unique. It is the smallest of 35 mariner’s astrolabes surviving from the early part of the seventeenth century and the only one from France. It is in excellent condition, except for one missing piece, a small ring on the bottom edge of the disk, to which a weight was likely attached to help keep the instrument plumb. The ring was probably broken off sometime in the late nineteenth century, since it appears in an 1879 photograph of the astrolabe.

    For a more thorough analysis of the connection between Champlain and this instrument, see “The Mystery of Champlain’s Astrolabe” or, more recent, “19th century manuscript sheds new light on ‘Champlain’s Astrolobe [sic]’ thought lost by French explorer.”  ↩

Field Trip to The Chemical Heritage Foundation

Each time I teach Collecting Nature & Displaying Authority we take three field trips to local museums. Our first outing took us to the ‎Chemical Heritage Foundation. Megan, one of the Visitor Services Assistants, led us around on an informative tour and engaging tour of the permanent exhibition, Making Modernity.

A portrait of Robert Boyle—a chemistry hero if there ever was one.
A portrait of Robert Boyle—a chemistry hero if there ever was one.

The students were pensive and measured but asked really interesting questions about curators, visitors, tours, objects, displays, design, architecture, public engagement, policy, scholars and fellows, funding, etc.

Students take notes at one of the displays in the CHF.
Students take notes at one of the displays in the CHF.

Before we went to the CHF, students compiled a list of questions or issues that they wanted to think about when they visited:

  1. How does the museum—through its history, its literature, its architecture, its collections, etc.—represent itself? What image is it trying to project?
  2. Who is encouraged to visit the museum?
  3. Is there an entrance fee?
  4. Is there a gift shop?
  5. How are visitors expected to act in the museum?
  6. What does the museum expect visitors to know?
  7. Are there guides or docents or gallery attendants? If so, what role do they play?
  8. How are the objects arranged, labeled, displayed? What do those choices suggest?
  9. Are there coherent themes that recur in the gallery? Is there a unified theme?
  10. Are donors identified in any way, e.g., a wall of donors, listed on individual displays?
  11. Are donors’ contributions indicated, e.g., by items donated, by amount of money donated?
  12. What argument is the museum trying to make? What message does it want visitors to take home?

They also thought of a few things to do while there:

  1. Choose three things (e.g., objects, cases, portraits, books, lighting, plinth) and explain what they are doing in this museum.
  2. Pick out one or two objects or display cases that surprised you in some way and explain why it surprised you?
  3. Find two or three things that are part of the display but not “on display,” e.g., lighting fixtures, handrail, curtains, and explain what they are doing, how they affect the display, what choices they represent.
A portrait of Paul Ehrlich, “The Father of Chemotherapy” according to the label.
A portrait of Paul Ehrlich, “The Father of Chemotherapy” according to the label. Read more about this portrait at the CHF webpage.

Given the smart questions students asked, I am looking forward to reading their write-ups about the visit.

Video Game Museums Abound, and Falter

The BBC’s coverage of the Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines has been attracting considerable attention recently.

The Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines
The Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines

The Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines joins a number of other video game museums (most of which seem to be struggling to survive), including:

These museums often adopt grand rhetoric about education and enjoyment. “A key goal of the IAM is to establish a definitive collection of mechanical amusement devices, coin-operated machines and videogames for the enjoyment and education of society as a whole.” The American Classic Arcade Museum promises to keep alive the history of coin-operated arcade games “through educational displays, cut-away models of games, vintage publications, antique catalogs and guest lectures given by prominent figures in arcade history.” These arcade and video game museums are clearly trying to pull the lowly video game with its “for amusement only” joystick out of the rubbish pile of societal detritus and to elevate the level of important cultural artifact.

They all seem, however, to depend on nostalgia. As the Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines puts it: “There are moments when you want to come back in the childhood for a short while, because there were so many interesting things that we remember cordially till now.” Perhaps these museums are struggling because nostalgia simply isn’t a powerful enough reason.

Corporate, Personal, and Neon Museums

For more than 500 years people, governments, churches, and other institutions have used their collections of things to assert, display, and establish their own authority and standing. Arranged in cabinets of curiosity, cabinets of wonder, Kunstkammern, Wunderkammern, or museums, the artifacts in such collections often reflect a logic of display idiosyncratic to the collector’s own system of values, the collector’s ideologies and goals. This system of values is embodied in the answers to a host of questions that most visitors never stop to ponder, inter alia:

  • What gets displayed? Of the possible objects in a collection, which ones are elevated to the status of displayable?
  • How? In what sort of display case? How are the labeled? How are they illuminated?
  • Where is the collection located—in a basement, a person’s house, a small apartment, an annex to a corporate or governmental complex, a storage lot, a purpose-built structure?
  • Who gets to see the collection? When is it open? Does it cost money or require special permission?
  • Who pays for the maintenance?
  • How is the museum portrayed or marketed in brochures, pamphlets, ads?
  • How is the visitor’s path through the museum directed—by the layout of cabinets and displays, by some sort of self-guided tour, by a human guide?

Three recent museums allow us to think again about how collections are still used to create identity and assert authority.

The Carpigiani Gelato Museum celebrates gelato (Source:Screen shot from the museum.)

Carpigiani’s recently opened Gelato Museum tells the noble story of gelato from ancient Mesopotamia to 20th century. Like many museums, this represents a particular history in order to create or embellish or celebrate the founder’s own story. In this case the founder, Carpigiani, uses the museum to generate historical authority for its own products—gelato machines and it gelato university courses. The museum is at the Carpigiani headquarters in Bologna. See The Guardian’s article.

Mr. Koch will allow historians and school children to tour his Old West town (Source: Screenshot from “Political and Class Issues Complicate a Colorado Land Dispute” in the NY Times.)

In Colorado Bill Koch’s personal wild west museum is nearing completion. He has been creating his own vision of an Old West town, a patchwork of relocated historic buildings stand amongst new structures, designed to look old and fill out Koch’s vision. When the buildings are finished Koch will fill them with his collection of Western memorabilia. Koch’s Old West town is a fiction insofar as it never existed and much of it isn’t authentic, if we assume authenticity extends beyond the surface and includes such characteristics as age. Koch’s Old West town is a fiction created to realize some boyhood dream, to undergird his own autobiographical fiction. Koch resembles a modern Emperor Maximilian I, who created histories out of whole cloth to legitimate his cultural authority. Koch, like Maximilian, has created the artifacts he needs to fill in his picture. For Koch as for Maximilian authenticity is measured not by the artifact’s historical origin but it’s role in completing the picture of the past, its ability to fill in an otherwise missing visual or conceptual detail.

The Stardust casino’s neon sign is now an exhibit at the Neon Museum (Source: Screenshot from New Museum Shows Off Las Vegas’s Neon Side in the NY Times.)

An open-air museum of neon signs just opened in Las Vegas. The article in the NY Times makes it sound more like a graveyard for neon signs or, as the museum’s own website describes it, a neon boneyard. Like the gelato museum, this one seems to have been founded at least in part to celebrate a business, the Young Electric Sign Co. donated dozens of signs for the initial collection. From the YESCO website:

The history of ancient cities was written in stone. But for Las Vegas, stone just wouldn’t do.
No American city has a past as colorful or as flamboyant as Las Vegas. The city’s story was blazed against the desert sky. Handed down over the decades in brilliant color, incandescent lights and the glorious glow of neon. YESCO is proud of its contribution to the legacy of light in the most razzle-dazzle city in the world.

Along with reinforcing YESCO’s own history, the museum is a conscious effort by some people to claim for Las Vegas some measure of cultural influence. The chairman of the museum’s board hopes the museum will begin to appreciate Las Vegas’s history: “Las Vegas has made many significant contributions to pop culture, as well as culture in the United States. We need to stop thinking that Las Vegas is simply a kitschy town.

If it worked for Renaissance princes and monarchs, why can’t it work for Las Vegas, Bill Koch, and gelato?

[Cross posted at PACHS.]

From Trash Collecting to Collection of Trash

Nelson Molina poses with his collection, from NY Times slide show.

Another article in the NY Times raises questions about the nature of features of a museum. This time, a NYC sanitation worker, Nelson Molina, has spent the last 20 years collecting things that other people have thrown away. His collection now includes around 1000 pieces of art that he has arranged in the second floor of a Sanitation Department garage.

Molina’s theory of art is both straighforward and unassailable. When asked to explain how he decides whether or not to include a piece, he replied: “It doesn’t matter what it is. As long as it’s cool, I can hang it up and I’ve got a place for it.”

The endowment effect apparently makes us value things we possess or can imagine possessing.

Over at Smithsonian.com’s Smart News blog a recent post tries to explain why we collect things, or at least why we hoard things: Why We Hoard and How to Stop. The basic claim seems to be we value things we own or wish to own—there may be a circularity here that tends toward vicious. Researchers call this the endowment effect.

I am not convinced this the endowment effect is acting in Mr. Molina’s case. He doesn’t, after all, owns any of the objects he collects and arranges.