Astrolabes & Navigation (redux, again)

A friend recently visited Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum and came across the reference to the astrolabe in Muslim culture. Thinking of me, she snapped a photo and sent it to me:

“The Science of Navigation” panel inaccurately claims that astrolabes were used in navigation.

While I am delighted to see astrolabes in a children’s museum, I am disheartened to see a museum misrepresenting them. The myth that astrolabes were used as navigational instruments is persistent and pernicious.[1]

The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia is not directly responsible for this panel or its content. The panel is part of a traveling exhibition created by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan: “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Culture Near and Far.” After leaving the Please Touch Museum, the panel and its myth will travel with the complete exhibit to the Sabeel Center, Des Plaines (IL).

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan is responsible for disseminating this particular falsehood.

I am surprised that a museum drawing on “an international network of advisors from academia, research, civil society, government and the arts” ended up trafficking in such falsehoods. Perhaps the person assigned to work on this panel did some “research” and found (likely online) numerous references that repeat this falsehood. For example, the otherwise reputable looking ThoughtCo, with the tagline “Lifelong Learning,” has a recently updated post: “The Astrolabe: Using the Stars for Navigation and Timekeeping.”[2] This post, its title, and much of its content are inaccurate and wrong. Apparently amongst the long list of advisors to the exhibition nobody raised any concerns about astrolabes as navigational instruments.[3] I wonder if anybody thought to contact an expert, not some generic academic but a historian of astronomy or a historian of scientific instruments. If so, how did that expert not catch the error?

Alas. Truth and accuracy (historical or otherwise) require more work and constant diligence.

To be perfectly clear:

Astrolabes were not developed as navigational instruments and were never used as navigational instruments.[4]

  1. Yes, mariner’s astrolabes were used in navigation, but that’s a different, purely observational instrument designed to determine the altitude of celestial objects while on a moving ship (whether or not you want to call it a type of astrolabe is up to you—I tend not to think of them as astrolabes).  ↩

  2. Online references to astrolabes as navigational instruments are about as common as online references to Columbus proving the earth is round.  ↩

  3. Many of these organizations should have known better (and have experts who surely do know better):
    30 Mosques in 30 Days, Aga Khan Museum, Al Amana Centre, Albanian Institute New York, Arab American Association of New York, Auburn Theological Seminary, BoomGen Studios, Columbia University, Fordham University, The Halal Guys, Honest Chops, Indian Ocean World Centre, The Interfaith Center of New York, International Museum of Women, Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Community Center Manhattan, Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, Manhattan College, Marble Collegiate Church, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Middle Collegiate Church, MIIM Designs, Muslim Community Network, New York City Government, NYC Office of the Mayor, New York Public Library – Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Pakistan Mission to the United Nations, Shaoor Foundation for Education and Awareness, Sikh Coalition, Tarek Atrissi Design, Temple University, Unity Productions Foundation, University of Pennsylvania  ↩

  4. See note 1.  ↩