The first year at a new job unfolds in stages. There is the period of getting used to the organizational culture of the place. The ongoing dance of getting to know one’s co-workers. And, in the case of a museum, the familiarization with the collection.
One object in particular seems to rear up in conversation again and again…appearing even in my dreams. The story goes like this: Upon arriving at PEM last winter, I sat in on meetings about the upcoming Winter Antiques Show, happening in New York’s Park Avenue Armory this January. We are providing the featured loan exhibition this year, a distinction previously held by Newport Historical Society, the Shelburne Museum and The Met. Among objects chosen from our collection to be exhibited in New York is PEM’s astrolabe.
What is an astrolabe, you ask?
An astrolabe is a device for studying the stars. They were also used by mariners to navigate. This one dates from about 1600. The planispheric astrolabe was invented in the ancient Islamic world to locate and predict the positions of planets and stars as well as to determine local time. Adopted by Europeans in Medieval times, this unique iron example is adorned with silvered zodiacal signs that suggest an astrological function.
Dan Finamore, our curator of maritime art, elaborates:
Experts say there isn’t another one like it in the whole world.
Not another one like it in the whole world? Perhaps the uniqueness of our astrolabe is why the object stayed with me, albeit in the lizard part of my brain. One night, after visiting a fall Harvest festival, resplendent with baby goats and falling leaves, I dreamed that a bearded brew-master placed a golden ale in front of me, with this statement: “Now THAT’S an astrolabe!”
Those who actually attended the festival in real life with me were present in the dream, in the exact same places. My dream self turned to them:
“Did you hear that? He said ‘astrolabe.’ Does he mean the beer tastes like an astrolabe? Or will I feel like an astrolabe?
The dream was so real, I later asked my friend if the bearded guy who served me the beer that day actually used the word. His answer was, of course not. So, it was, indeed, a dream. I told people about it at work. I looked up the object to make sure I even remembered correctly what it was. Then, a few days later, for a blog post, I asked Dan Finamore to name one of our more overlooked objects in the collection. His answer? You guessed it! The astrolabe!
I fired off an email, telling Finamore about the dream! Was I going crazy or gaining psychic powers? Of our 1.8 million objects, many thousands of which are under Finamore’s purview as maritime curator, he chose the astrolabe?! What was going on? My email was met with silence. I bumped into him later the next day on Essex Street, walking in search of lunch, and tried to explain the dream to him again. (Did I appear to him a crazy person? To froth at the mouth?) I’m no lunatic, I assured him, just a vivid dreamer.
A couple of weeks later the marketing department was gathered in a conference room looking at recent shots from our photo department. I turned away from the screen momentarily to chat with our new Director of Guest Experience Craig Tuminaro who was seated next to me. Suddenly, he pointed at the screen over my shoulder.
“Wait…” His face was stricken with bewilderment. “What’s that?”
At his question, I was both filled with exhaustion of the topic and with elation to know that someone else was as enthralled with the object as I was.
“That, my friend,” I said, “is an astrolabe.”