Tuesday, February 07, 2012

An Astrolabe Rant

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/07 at 01:34 PM

Continuing my fixation on astrolabes, here I am going to rant a bit about a particular “Mini Eastern Astrolabe.” To be fair, this is a trinket sold at museum gift shops:

The “Mini Eastern Astrolabe” for sale in the British Museum gift shop

It is meant to be a souvenir. It is not billed as a replica or other functioning device. Nevertheless, I would think the British Museum, which has one of the larger collections of astrolabes, could find a better trinket, especially considering the price.

Here are my problems with this “Mini Eastern Astrolabe.” On the one hand, it is clearly styled on the later, eastern astrolabes. The rete and the throne closely resemble the 17th-century instruments made in Lahore. See, for example, those by Muḥammad Muqǐm here, here, and here.

Compare the British Museum astrolabe:

The “Mini Eastern Astrolabe” for sale in the British Museum gift shop (Source: Screenshot from BM Gift Shop)

To an astrolabe from the Lahore:

An astrolabe made by Muḥammad Muqǐm in 17th-century Lahore (Source: Screenshot from The Museum of the History of Science)

Two things that bother me most about the BM’s “Mini Eastern Astrolabe” are:
First, astrolabes from Lahore and eastern astrolabes don’t typically have a rule on the front of the instrument. When there is a rule, it is frequently a later addition by some European collector. There are probably exceptions, but in general eastern astrolabe do not have a rule. See, for example, the scores of eastern astrolabes at the Museum of the History of Science: Arabic astrolabes.
Second, the small circle on the rete is a scale of the zodiac. On the BM’s “Mini Eastern Astrolabe” the names of the zodiacal signs have been replaced by names of the month (at least as far as I can tell from the picture on the website). To make matters worse, I think, the names are in a pseudo-medieval Latin script, e.g., Martivs.

The rete on the “Mini Eastern Astrolabe.” Not the names of the month are legible, especially Martivs and October (Source: Screenshot from BM Gift Shop)

I don’t need the souvenirs at gift shops to be perfect, but I would like them to conform to some basic standards. Simply removing the rule on the front would be a start. Engraving the names of the zodiac instead of the Latin month would be even better. Either or both would bring this trinket in line with the historical objects it purports to represent.

But maybe I’m just ranting, like Peter Barthel, the Dutch astronomer who was recently all worked up about the incorrect representations of the moon on Christmas cards: Santa and the Moon. If he can rant about getting the moon right—though he didn’t seem all that worked up about getting Santa right—on holiday cards that are not produced or sold by experts and don’t purport to reflect reality, I should be allowed my rant about a trinket that is sold by an organization that should know better and purports to reflect real things.

Maybe people interested in astronomical sciences will like this “Mini Astrolabe,” but people interested in the history of science shouldn’t.

All I want is for the experts (and I think the BM should be considered an expert when it comes to astrolabes) to get the history of science right, or at least get it close.

Tags: astrolabe, british museum, peter barthel, souvenir


Comment posted by beckyfh on 02/07 at 04:22 PM

It is fair enough to have a rant about this topic - perhaps reserving some ire for the company that makes and sells such items for sale online and in shops, claiming them as historical-scientific trinkets? Museum shops should, of course, reflect the institution’s reputation and expertise but remember that the shop managers and buyers are a whole different set of people to the curators and exhibitions people!


Comment posted by Darin Hayton on 02/07 at 04:42 PM

I guess my rant is aimed more at the issue than any particular example. In my opinion, institutions that have cultural/intellectual authority have a greater responsibility to get it right, so to speak, or at least not get it too wrong. This astrolabe gets it too wrong, at least for me today.

The real key, for me, is the implicit endorsement that comes when a museum or similar institution sells something. That endorsement is absent when buying something on-line or from a trinket shop.

In the end, I don’t mean to suggest that the BM is any worse or better than other museum gift shops. It just happened to be the example that crossed my path today, as I’m all in a lather about astrolabes. Or maybe I’m just cranky today.

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