Real, replica, fake or fiction?

When we allowed a Steampunk ‘intervention’ into Flamsteed House and the Time and Longitude Gallery at the Royal Observatory Greenwich last year, in the exhibition Longitude Punk’d, reactions were varied. Many were really positive about bringing some imagination and artistry in to explore the themes, objects and spaces and we undoubtedly attracted at least a few visitors who might not otherwise have gone.

There were, however, more than a few staff and visitors who were annoyed that we were mixing fact and fiction and taking away the authoritative voice of the Museum. How would people learn anything? How would they know what was real history and which were the real objects? Either proving or entirely dismissing their point, most visitors, particularly tourists there for a photograph on the prime meridian, probably didn’t even realise that they were not seeing a straight forward exhibition.

What those who worried about ‘reality’ perhaps don’t fully appreciate is the extent to which fictions and fakes are always a part of museum displays. It is the joy of something like this exhibition – or the really wonderful Stranger than Fiction exhibition at the Science Museum – that they force you to think harder about what we’re presented with and how we too blindly trust the authority and ‘reality’ of certain modes of presentation.

For me, this photograph I took in the Royal Observatory’s Octagon Room during Longitude Punk’d nicely brings out some of what I mean.

The Octagon Room at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, with 'Margaret Maskelyne's Orrery Gown' by Jema 'Emilly Ladybird' Hewitt. (Photo: Rebekah Higgitt)
The Octagon Room at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, with ‘Margaret Maskelyne’s Orrery Gown’ by Jema ‘Emilly Ladybird’ Hewitt. (Photo: Rebekah Higgitt)

While, even for the non-too eagle-eyed, it is clear that the dress in the centre, created for Longitude Punk’d, is not 18th century, for most visitors it might appear that this is a modern piece, with historical nods, simply dropped into a 17th-century space. It is a fiction dropped into history. But things are not what they seem.

Firstly, of course, we can note the museological trappings that make this space very different to the one that John Flamsteed knew. There are barriers, electric lights and museum labels, also a smooth, light wood floor. But what of those paintings? The instruments? The clocks and panelling?

A right old mix-up is the answer. Artfully arranged to evoke the 1676 engraving of the room by Francis Place:

Prospectus intra Cameram Stellatam [View inside the Star Room] (Photo: National Maritime Museum)
Prospectus intra Cameram Stellatam [View inside the Star Room] (Photo: National Maritime Museum)
What we have is a mixture of ‘original’ pieces, later historic objects, 20th-century replicas and 21st-century recreations. The room, much altered over the years, has been completely recreated. The engraving doesn’t give us much information on the nature of the panelling, but restoration work on the rooms downstairs suggested that a fake wood effect had – at least there – been an early wall treatment. Thus an original ‘fake’ effect has been ‘authentically’ recreated, possibly in the wrong space.

The astronomical quadrant, on the left, is a ‘real’ historic object, but some 75 years too late for this set-up. The telescope on the right (out of sight in my picture, but recreating the one in the engraving) is pure prop, without lenses. It used to offer those who bothered to take a look a view of a faded slide of Pluto (the cartoon dog). Now, after much effort of the sort that only those acquainted with the pace of change in large museums will appreciate, it has a picture of Saturn (the planet), fuzzed and chromatically distorted to give some sort of idea of what it was like looking through an early telescope. Obviously Saturn ain’t really visible, through the windows, in the daylight.

What of the paintings? Well, the rather splendid portrait of Charles II (left) is from 1670. I assume (correct me if I’m wrong – annoyingly the catalogue entry doesn’t give the provenance) that this has stayed at Greenwich, if not this room, throughout the centuries – it is certainly similar to the one in the engraving. However, for the purposes of this post we should note that it is nevertheless “thought to be a copy of a Lely”.

The engraving also shows us a painting of the Duke of York, later James II, who had been, perhaps significantly, Lord High Admiral until 1673. However, the one that is currently there is in fact a commissioned replica from 1984. I have no idea what happened to the (copy?) Lely of James that was originally there. Did Charles survive and not James because of an anti-Catholic Astronomer Royal (nearly all of them, I reckon, before the 20th century)? Answers below, please.

The clocks, originally by Thomas Tompion, are perhaps the most complex story of all. Again, what’s in the two images appears to match but that’s about where it stops. Famously, after Flamsteed’s death his wife Margaret sold off the books and instruments at the Observatory, fairly seeing them as private property since they had either been bought by or gifted to Flamsteed. The clocks, therefore, left the observatory.

Today, one of the clocks is back, but on the other side of the room. That is because it was altered and its original 13-foot pendulum changed so that it could be turned into a longcase clock. The clock, with the original dial fitted into an 18th-century wooden case and its mechanism on display in a late 20th-century glass case, is a completely different beast. Next to it is a (wonderful) interloper: a Tompion longcase, which only moved to the Observatory in 2010.

What you can see in the top picture is two replica dials (although the one on the far right is a replica of a sideral clock that, although it was included in the Place drawing, seems never to have actually been installed at the Observatory: a replica of a fiction, therefore) and a reconstruction. The reconstruction, a “tribute” to Tompion by a horology student at West Dean College, has a transparent dial so that the extraordinary pendulum, with a backwards-and-forwards rather than side-to-side motion, can be admired. Excitingly, though, for seekers of ‘reality’, the clock’s positioning was “made possible as many of the original holes for the mount fittings are still visible.”

There we have it. The most original thing in the room are some holes behind the skirting.

Fraud and the decline of science

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Engraving of Edward Sabine, 1865
Edward Sabine was accused of fixing his results. Photograph: National Maritime Museum.

Today on this site Alok Jha published a fascinating article on fraud and misconduct in scientific research, suggesting that “bad practice … is rife” and that its scale is becoming ever-more apparent through the use of software and statistical analyses that flag up suspicious results.

These bad practices, which vary in seriousness, are itemised. They include fraud, massaged results, plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, sloppiness, selective publishing, incorrect attribution of work and nondisclosure of conflicts of interest. Jha suggests that “Increasing competition for shrinking government budgets for research and the disproportionately large rewards for publishing in the best journals have exacerbated the temptation to fudge results or ignore inconvenient data”.

While things may feel pressured today, it made me consider the extent to which, in the past, opportunities and livelihoods might depend on producing good or believable results. Before there was any kind of obvious career path for the sciences, coming up with the goods at the right moment for the right patrons was critically important.

Jha’s list of scientific sins brought to mind another such list, from a famously forthright and rancorous diatribe by Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and designer of the Difference Engine. Although the book was ostensibly about science, its organisation and funding in England – it was called Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes – its chief targets were personal.

Above all, Babbage picked out the career of Edward Sabine for criticism. Sabine, unlike Babbage, had received patronage from the elite that dominated the Royal Society in the late 18th and early 19th century and, crucially, controlled its connections with the chief source of government patronage for science, the Admiralty and its Board of Longitude.

Babbage was out to show that not only was the system closed, with a small group controlling access to the purse strings and the same individuals being selected over and again for the few scientific honours or paid positions that existed, but also that one of the chief beneficiaries, Sabine, was undeserving.

In one of the most remarkable sections of this remarkable text, Babbage picked on the pendulum observations that Sabine had made on Arctic voyages led by John Ross and William Parry in 1818-20, for which he had received £1000 from the Board of Longitude and was awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal. Babbage wrote of the “extraordinary nature” of Sabine’s observations, which had a “remarkable agreement with each other … unexpected by those most conversant with the respective processes”.

He devotes a whole section to ‘the frauds of observers’, writing that “Scientific inquiries are more exposed than most others to the inroads of pretenders”, because only the “initiated’ are in a position to spot them. The first listed is HOAXING, which is only excusable inasmuch as it reveals the gullibility of those who should know better. The next is FORGING, which fortunately is rare. Then come TRIMMING and COOKING, which Babbage intimates were Sabine’s sins.

The Trimmer “[clips] off little bits here and there”, while adding on elsewhere, to make his results more agreeable. “His object is to gain a reputation for extreme accuracy” and it can be difficult to detect. The Cook’s art is, likewise, “to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy”. But instead of keeping close to the actual average reached, it can involve radical selectivity in results or the use of different formulae to create a false agreement.

Babbage was confident that future philosophers (men of science) would be able to discover the Cooks, if not the Trimmers:

it would most probably happen that the cook would procure a temporary reputation for unrivalled accuracy at the expense of his permanent fame. It might also have the effect of rendering even all his crude observations of no value; for that part of the scientific world whose opinion is of most weight, is generally so unreasonable, as to neglect altogether the observations of those in whom they have, on any occasion, discovered traces of the artist.

In a bit of casual 19th century sexism, he added that, thus, “the character of an observer, as of a woman, if doubted is destroyed”.

Was Sabine guilty? The jury would seem to be out – he was certainly a diligent observer, but the young officer, unused to his borrowed instruments and on his mettle, no doubt desperate to bring home impressive results in the hope of future commissions, may well have been tempted to a little trimming.

Did Babbage’s doubts destroy his character or career? Emphatically not. Sabine proved himself to be a willing aid to the Admiralty and was evidently both plausible and an excellent networker, successfully bringing together a disparate range of individuals and interests in support of what has become known as the Magnetic Crusade in the 1830s and 40s. He lived to a ripe age, was president of both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society and was knighted in 1869.

In the short term at least, it would seem that the accuser’s reputation suffered more than the accused.