Exhibit in Focus: Syntax of an Astrolabe


Francesca Liuni discusses "Syntax of an Astrolabe."

Syntax of an Astrolabe DetailFor the exhibit Syntax of an Astrolabe, architect and exhibition designer Francesca Liuni uses a planisperic astrolabe from the Collection to demonstrate her singular expression of how architecture can be utilized to help impart historical context to scientific instruments. Francesca graciously agreed to answer some questions about her vision (more fully discussed in her 2016 Masters Thesis for MIT.).

Q: Why an astrolabe? Were other instruments considered?

I learned about the astrolabe in a class I took during my master studies in Architecture at MIT (the Aga Khan Program). The class, 'Recreating Scientific experiments from history', was offered by The MIT Edgerton Center and taught by Elisabeth Cavicchi. During the class she showed us a prototype of an astrolabe and she explained us how it worked. I was intrigued by the complexity of the geometry of the instrument and I decided immediately that my masters thesis had to be related to it. I already had in my mind the idea of focusing my thesis on Museum design, and this was just the right challenge for me at the right time.

I started to investigate how this instrument was exhibited in museums, and how visitors could learn about its mathematical complexity through curatorial practice. What I noticed is that they, quite simply, cannot. Visitors can observe carefully exhibited astrolabes displayed in beautifully designed spaces, but they cannot have access to information other than their dates and origins, and in some cases prototypes that explain function. The actual geometrical complexity of the instruments and all the mathematical knowledge embedded in it is completely excluded from the visitor.

I am neither a mathematician or scientist, hence my point of view was the one of a completely ignorant visitor whose curiosity is aroused by this ancient enigmatic piece of brass.

During Cavicchi's class we visited the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments and there I saw for the first time the astrolabe which then became the protagonist of my Architecture thesis and of this exhibit.

Hence, no, I have never considered other instruments. I read and learned about other instruments developed at the same time while studying it, but the astrolabe definitely captured my attention more than the others. Also, it is a well know object for museum and exhibition practice. There was enough for me to discuss, and enough to discover inside one of them that I just dedicated all my energy to understanding it, and to think about what museums could do for making the knowledge of this small instrument understandable to everyone...what I could do as an architect, and how museum design could address this issue. 'Je dois apprendre aux curieux' ("I have to teach to the curious.") was given as the background of an Italian art documentary program I loved to watch, a quote from "Expédition nocturne autour de ma chambre." of Xavier de Maistre.

Well, the solution was pretty straightforward: the only (but extremely powerful) tool of communication an architect has is space. My answer was "I just have to use the space. I have to let the space be the means of communication of the mathematics of this instrument." Everything started there.


Q: What difference does an “immersive experience” make to a museum visitor, and how in your view does (or should) museum architecture inform that experience?

During my first year at MIT I participated to the XXXIV edition of the Scientific Instruments Symposium with Cavicchi, and I designed an outdoor installation for exhibiting the geometry of the astrolabe. At that time, I was just at the beginning of my exploration. The installation was a sort of glass box where all the geometrical constructions where carved on the four walls of the space together with the disks that compose the object. The object was 'exploded' and the mater was located in a central showcase. The sunlight projected the shadows of the lines carved on the glass walls on the floor of the space and the lines accordingly move during the day as the Earth rotates. The visitors were physically 'immersed' in this entanglement of lines.

The main critique to that project was that I simply projected the bidimensional geometry legible on the surface of the astrolabe on another bidimensional surfaces. Yes, probably the visitor could have had a sensorial experience but the mathematics embedded in the astrolabe, its scientific knowledge and its conceptual content were still flattened on surfaces (the walls) that then simply outline a space. The real challenge was to let the mathematical concepts embedded in the instruments become the space itself, using ''the capacity of a certain deployment of form and space to suggest a level of formal information which cannot be understood from a marking of the actual geometry alone but rather is derived both from the implications which are spatially inherent in the actual geometry and from the capacity of the individual in space to receive this information'' (P. Eisenman, Notes on Conceptual Architecture II A in Environmental Design Research, Vol II).

I think this quote explains better than whatever I can say to illustrate the mutual relationship between an individual and space. Creating an 'immersive experience' is the result of that: exposing the individual in space to a series of spatial information that she will absorb and process as part of her own experience. Therefore in this case, if the mathematical concepts are then part of her three-dimensional experience, they become the context in which she moves. As soon as the visitor enters in the space she is immersed in the concept itself and hence she is experiencing it. This is what architecture always does and this is what architecture is, "the thoughtful making of space'' (L. Khan, Perspecta, IV, 1957).

Nevertheless, I think it is the real challenge in the case of this exhibit, and in the more general case, of trying to visually translate a mathematical language in an educational environment like a museum, is that you have to use this approach to create an environment that lets your experience be not only sensorial or suggestive (as for architecture), but cerebral. The space wants to explain something, not only suggest something, to the individual. It wants to communicate, for example, a mathematical concept using the syntax of the space as means of communication.

This idea of 'immersive experience' is essential for museums, I think, because it is able to create a sort of personal dimension for visitors...a space where the object is protagonist, but also the visitors are protagonists of an architectural environment that is defined but at the same time abstract. The major difference, between using this approach in architecture in general, and in the museum setting, is in the intention: an architect should always aim to create immersive experience. The challenge for the museum architecture is being able to create a cerebral experience as well as a sensorial one.


Q: What was the greatest challenge you faced in designing and mounting the exhibit?

It is easy to understand that, due to the scale of the project, it was really challenging to build everything on my own, and plan everything ahead in order to be able to lift and mount it alone. However, I have to admit that the main challenge I faced was compromising. The exhibit is based on my Master of Architecture thesis work, which was the design of a museum for exhibiting astrolabes where each room was a representation of a concept or mathematical proof embedded in the object. The difficulty that arose when I had to adapt this idea to a different but real space was finding the right compromise: trying to make my idea visible, being faithful to my concept, but at the same time integrating the material I had to choose with the existing architecture, making a choice of suitable construction material while trying not to lose the architectural scale; that is, being practical. I supposed this has to be the major challenge of any architect in practice. However, finding and accepting the compromise was the real challenge: I tried to keep in mind that, beyond any compromise, you should always be faithful to your concept.


Q: What is your favorite museum and why?

Among the museums I visited so far, the Neues Museum of Berlin as redesigned by David Chipperfield and Michele DeLucchi for the exhibition and graphic design. I think it perfectly represents what a museum should aim to create: the architecture is at the service of the objects exhibited, which does not mean that it has to be in the background or that it cannot be a well designed space, but on the contrary the architecture of the space and the exhibition design improve the appreciation of the objects. The space honored the objects exhibited.