Taking the Stars with Peter Ifland

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As a museum we deal with a lot of wonderful donors, but few make as big of an impact as Peter Ifland.  So when we learned that he passed away on May 20, we were devastated.  Peter has been involved with The Mariners’ Museum since 1996 while consulting with Willem F.J. Mörzer Bruyns, who was at the time curator of navigation at Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum.  Bruyns invited Peter to The Mariners’ Museum to attend a symposium on navigational and scientific instruments.  Peter then worked with museum staff to publish the book Taking the Stars:  Celestial Navigation from Argonauts to Astronauts in 1998.  This was followed by numerous donations over the years of Peter’s extensive instrument collection, totaling 154 pieces, many of which can be found in his book.  Besides these donated pieces, he also gave us the funds to purchase other instruments.

Because of Peter’s generosity, it has been said that our collection of navigating instruments “ranks among the world’s largest and most significant of its kind” (Bruyns).  And so I wanted to share some highlights from the collection to honor Peter.   Read more

Unwrapping our Eagle

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Several weeks I posted about our USS Lancaster eagle figurehead because we were wrapping the not so little guy in what we had dubbed a “baster bag”.  The reason for this was that the wall behind the eagle (seen in the picture above) was to be removed so that a new graphic could be put up.  This was a much needed change as the wall was a dingy blue carpet that has been up since the 90’s.

Our beautiful eagle, carved by John Haley Bellamy, was wrapped in plastic to protect it from debris and dust while the work was being done, which took a number of weeks.  Now the work is almost done and this morning we were unable to unwrap the eagle and give everyone a first look at the awesome new graphic!!

Columbus and Bush

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Christopher Columbus leaving Palos, Spain by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida
Christopher Columbus leaving Palos, Spain by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida

We frequently loan out objects to other museums, just as we frequently borrow objects for our exhibitions.  Our hit exhibition this summer, Fragile Waters, was all borrowed material.  We recently sent a painting that is a vital part of our Age of Exploration gallery out on loan.  While we would not ordinarily loan an object that was on display at our institution, we decided to make an exception because this piece was considered to be very important for the exhibition.  The painting I am referring to (pictured below) is titled Christopher Columbus leaving Palos, Spain painted ca 1910 by  Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida.  Sorolla wanted this portrait of Columbus to be as accurate as possible, so he did a considerable amount of research, sketches and even had a descendant of Columbus, the Duke of Veragua, pose for the painting.

This brings me to the loan bit.  We loaned it to the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas for their exhibition Sorrolla & America.  The exhibition opened on December 13 and will remain there until April 19, 2014.  After Texas it will be heading to The San Diego Museum of Art (May 30-August 26, 2014) and Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid (September 23, 2014-January 11, 2015).  What excited us was that The Meadows Museum sent us a picture of a special visitor with our painting after the exhibition had opened, former President George W. Bush!  (pictured below)  I’ve got to say, it’s pretty cool that a former President has been photographed with our painting.   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