Food for Thought Series: What a Menu Can Teach About Art

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We usually think of menus in purely functional terms, right? It is a sort of small booklet one gets in a restaurant that lists the possible foods we could order. Ocean liner menus, however, strive to be more than just functional; they are part of a whole vacation experience and therefore play more than just a purely functional role on a cruise. These menus must enhance the guests’ experiences on the voyage and impress them (as presumably the rest of the cruise does). Ocean liner menus are, in effect, part of the “whole package.” Because of this, ocean liner menus, especially older ones, were decorated, aesthetically pleasing pieces of art, as well as menus. The menus in the Beazley Collection exemplify this idea with their often colorful designs:

This menu cover, for example, from the ocean liner Bremen (1929-1939), is like a work of art unto itself. Can these menus then function as more than just utilitarian objects that showcase food? Yes, they can and did. The menu covers often offered the viewer valuable insight into a society’s cultural or aesthetic values.   Read more

Ancient Navigation

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The Mariners’ Museum has a large collection of very old—to ancient navigation instruments. These include astrolabes in the Age of Exploration gallery, quadrants, cross staffs, back staffs, octants & sextants in several galleries. A reproduction of the even more primitive Kama’l can be found in the Age of Exploration Gallery, and it was one of the earliest devices to estimate the elevation of a heavenly body above the horizon. That observation put the ancients on the same track that we “modern” navigators used—until satellites, computers, and GPS made the satisfying and elegant art of celestial navigation obsolete.

The earliest astronomers through painstaking and detailed observations and record-keeping recognized that the stars seemed to rotate about a single star in the heavens, Polaris, in the constellation Ursa Minor. The ancients eventually realized that the angular elevation (altitude) of Polaris above the horizon corresponded almost exactly with the latitude on the earth from which the altitude measurement was made. From the altitude of Polaris, and a few corrections the Latitude can be easily calculated. (Corrections are necessary since Polaris is not exactly due north, in fact, because of precession of the earth’s axis, Polaris was not always and will not always be the North Star. Around 14,000 CE, the star Vega will be in that position for 500 or 1000 years.)   Read more