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.

Update: H Word posts on books, hoaxes, lives and laptops

Posts over on The H Word, from the last little while. Comments on all of these are now closed, but please feel free to continue any of the conversations in the comments here – particularly on reading about science, discussed in the last post listed here.  On that theme, see also Georgina Voss’s post asking for suggestions of fictional works that help explore the politics of science and technology.


Twenty years on from Longitude… rewriting the “villainous” Nevil Maskelyne

A new book on a Georgian Astronomer Royal reveals that there was a great deal more to Nevil Maskelyne than being clockmaker John Harrison’s bête noire.

The Great Moon Hoax and the Christian Philosopher

180 years ago newspaper readers were thrilled by a story about plants, animals and flying men on the Moon. Why were people convinced, was it a hoax, and why was it written? Was it a satire that went wrong?

Anna Atkins: Google’s tribute to a pioneer of botany and photography

One of the few women to gain presence in 19th-century science, her book, containing cyanotypes of botanical specimens, was the first to contain photographic images.

Destroyed Snowden laptop: the curatorial view

The Snowden MacBook, destroyed in the basement of the Guardian, is on display at the V&A. I asked some experts for their opinion of this unusual and provocative display of technology.

An alternative 13 best books about science?

What books do you think people should read to understand science – not just its content, but also its history and place in society?

Three centuries of innovation and education at the Museum of Childhood

I recently visited the Museum of Childhood and took a few snaps of things that stood out (with apologies for the poor, beyond-glass images: it turns out that none of these items have been photographed for the V&A collections site yet). There were, of course, plenty of science-related toys on display. Chemistry sets, optical toys and a whole case devoted to lantern slides are just the tip of the iceberg. Children are surrounded by the new and by nostalgia, by pastimes that are meant to inform and which reflect the world around them

As a response to the novelty of hot air balloons, so well described in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, I enjoyed this sampler. Samplers are designed to keep children still (probably usually girls, although we have an early 20th-century sampler in the family worked by a boy called Percy), are rigorously formal in their reproduction of letters and numbers and yet there was, presumably, some freedom in choice of decoration.


This sampler was sewn by Mary Hall in 1786, just three years after the first flight of the Mongolfier brothers. However, as the catalogue description notes, there is an interesting juxtaposition between the excitement of manned flight and the verse, ‘Fragrant the rose is’, above: “in a melancholy poetic tradition that dwelt on the brevity of mortal life and was particularly popular in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries”.

Although they weren’t on display, the Museum an incomplete astronomy-themed sampler, which is pictured and discussed in this post: Star-gazing girls of Georgian England.

I was also pleased to come across this copy of Lessons on Objects (1840) by Elizabeth Mayo, who ran Cheam School in Surrey with her brother, together with a c.1850 box of specimens designed for educational use. Both were following the pedagogical methods of Yohann Pestalozzi, a Swiss reformer and idealist who advocated child-centred, hands-on, experimental and practical learning. The book encouraged children to use all their senses to explore the world around them, before being led to more systematic understanding. Mayo’s approach influenced the School Board for London, founded in 1870. The pre-prepared specimens includes all kind of materials: wax, gum, spices, fibres, paper, fur, metals (including mercury) and more.


My final object is a bit different. It is a board game from the 1970s that never quite took off, and gloried in the name Vagabondo. In case you want to know, the catalogue description gives the full rules of the game. It was a strategy game, “easy to learn and exciting to play” that could be adapted for 2, 4, or 3, 5 and 6 players. It seems to have been motivated by some high ideals, though what I am not entirely sure. Although it was not a commercial success it won the Queen’s Award for Achievement in 1978. Most fascinatingly of all, the box front includes not only a picture of the proud inventors but also a series of endorsements from a slightly bewildering range of famous individuals, who had clearly been informed of the ideas behind it. My pic wasn’t very legible, so here’s one I found online:

The celebrity endorsements were from Dame Margot Fonteyn De Arias (who “commends your reasons for inventing it”), Roald Dahl (“a splendid game”), Sir John Betjeman, Alan Whicker, Prof Desmond Morris (“certainly better than most other recently invented board games I have come across. I rate it as highly as the very successful Master Mind”), John Pertwee (“a very good game”), Hammond Innes (“a good one”), Poul Hartling (ex-Danish Prime Minister – “most interesting and enjoyable”), and Alfred Hitchcock (“I promise to spread the word, surreptitiously of course, among my friends here in California”).

What an odd collection of people! And what a wonderful collection of objects to explore in east London.

Heritage and the Royal Institution

Cross-posted from The H Word blog [first published 29 January 2013].

The Royal Institution
The Royal Institution in about 1838, by T H Shepherd. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It has been interesting to observe reactions to the recent news about the financial troubles at the Royal Institution potentially being so severe that they might have to sell their Georgian premises on Albemarle Street. There have been calls and petitions to save the building based on an appeal to history and nostalgia. Equally, there have been questions (e.g.herehere, and here) about the RI’s modern role and whether this is well-served by a vast Mayfair building and the traditions that it celebrates.

Without treading too far into the question of what the RI does or should do as an institution for the communication of science in the 21st century, it is worth thinking about it as a site of scientific heritage and ask what makes it unique and worth preserving even if the Royal Institution itself should cease to exist.

Scientific heritage can be a difficult thing to assess, preserve and interpret. Removed from their context, old scientific instruments are apt to lose much of their meaning. Those which survive in museums are often not those which were ever used, for outdated equipment tends to be replaced and thrown away. The large technology and infrastructure of modern science poses enormous challenges for collection and preservation. Buildings in which scientific work has been done are often unexciting architecturally and opaque to the uninitiated.

Unesco, responsible for the inscription of World Heritage, has recently begun to notice that scientific heritage is under-represented on its lists. The problems of aesthetics and size are pertinent, along with the fact that science is often not understood as a manifestation of human culture in the same way that palaces, art works or technological sites like bridges and railways are.

When Unesco weighs up the importance of world heritage, it does so with the aid of three categories: immovable, moveable and intangible heritage. The first includes buildings, monuments, sites and landscapes. Plainly some of these are movable, or at least alterable, but they are associated with a particular place and very often the linking of a set of buildings or their placing within a landscape lends them greater significance than they might have on their own.

Moveable heritage, broadly speaking, consists of things that could end up in museums, such as paintings, objets d’art, textiles, scientific instruments, furniture, books and manuscripts. While individual items of immovable heritage may be hugely important or valuable, their inclusion within a larger collection, or their placing within a particular location can greatly enhance their significance and meaning.

Finally, intangible heritage is the stuff that is harder to pin down. Unesco defines it as including “living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally”. Things inscribed as intangible heritage include dances, festivals, recipes and a bewildering variety of traditions.

Intangible ideas and traditions can also play an important role in assessing the significance of items in the other two categories. Given the fact that the history of science is associated with many intangibles (i.e. things that we no longer touch or hold) – such as people, ideas, skills, discussions and so on – it is clear that this third category can be an extremely useful concept to bear in mind.

Arguably, when all three of these types of heritage come together, we have something particularly valuable. I am lucky enough to work within a World Heritage Site which includes a site of outstanding scientific significance. The Royal Observatory includes buildings designed for science, which are enhanced by their housing historic instruments used on that site, and other wonderful objects. On top of this there are the intangibles associated with the work of the Astronomers Royal and with the concepts of the Prime Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time.

The RI has a similar combination. It has a building long used for scientific and related purposes, parts of which were designed specifically for their role – most obviously the lecture theatre. It also has significant book, object and archive collections, made more significant by their close association with the place in which they are displayed or stored.

The building and objects are associated with the intangibles surrounding the people and scientific research undertaken at the institution. While Faraday’s electrical work and the discovery of 10 elements are usually highlighted, there was a wide range of work done in analysis and testing materials and techniques, often for private or government clients.

In addition to this, of course, the RI had a key role to play in the story of the relationship between science and the public. It is hard to think of another historic site that has combined these roles over such a long period of time and, especially, one that is still inhabited by the same institution. The RI’s intangible heritage is undoubtedly heightened by this fact.

It is true that the RI’s primary audience was a privileged one, catering for a very different market to, say, popular attractions with scientific content or working men’s institutions. It is not, perhaps, a tradition we would be keen to perpetuate (and the RI certainly does not do so exclusively), but we can recognise that getting society leaders on board with the messages of Davy, Faraday and their successors was hugely significant for British science in the period of its nascent professionalisation.

While science communication and outreach can and should take place beyond such hallowed halls, there is benefit in having at least some of it flavoured and informed by science’s heritage. It reminds us that science is not disembodied, pure knowledge, but that it is created by people in particular times and places, with particular equipment and in response to the demands and possibilities of the society in which they inhabit. The heritage of the RI also shows that science has to be communicated – and that this is a business with a long and often rather repetitive back story from which audiences and communicators alike can learn.

The combination of types of unique scientific heritage at the Royal Institution should be cherished. I also suspect its continuity on one site both enhances its significance and may be the best chance of its preservation.

Geek mythology and Nikola Tesla

Cross-posted from The H Word.

A publicity shot of Nikola Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs in December 1899 – suggesting he was happy to play along with personal myth-making. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

You may have spotted that there is a campaign afoot to buy what was built (though used only briefly) as Nikola Tesla‘s laboratory and turn it into a museum and science centre. Despite claims of neglect, Tesla evidently commands significant interest, with $500,000 of online donations pouring in within 48 hours.

The campaign is a marriage of the Tesla Science Centre – a group who were interested simply in finding space for the Science Centre located in the Shoreham-Wading River High School to expand – and Indiegogo – the campaign Let’s Build a Goddam Tesla Museum run by Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal.

The Indiegogo website opens:

Nikola Tesla was the father of the electric age. Despite having drop-kicked humanity into a second industrial revolution, up until recently he’s been an unsung hero in history books.

Calling someone “the father of….”, or claiming a “first” usually sets warning bells ringing. This post by historian of science and technology James Sumner explains why. It’s also worth pointing out that this “unsung” hero already has an artefact- and manuscript-filled museumdevoted to him in Belgrade, a society, and an airport, as well as plenty of interest from historians.

Inman had already produced a comic piece testifying to Tesla being “the greatest geek who ever lived”, as “inventor” of alternating current, and a host of other things. Tesla here is the hero not just for his undoubted vision and talents, but for being “a tinkerer” and “a geek”. He is contrasted with Thomas Edison, the villain of the piece, who “was not a geek; he was a CEO”.

Quite rightly, even though it was comedic hyperbole, Inman’s version of Tesla was countered by Alex Knapp at Forbes with the sensibly-named post, Nikola Tesla Wasn’t God And Thomas Edison Wasn’t The Devil. Overall, the point is that technological innovations require a large number of people and an enormous amount of work to be developed and brought into practical use. Apart from meaning that many more than one individual are responsible, it is also the case that if any of these individuals had not existed, the innovation would most likely have happened anyway.

The Oatmeal – in nice style – produced a response. These pieces are old news, and I don’t intend to go through the rights and wrongs of each claim. What strikes me now, in this context, is Inman’s characterisations of the two. Tesla is thrilled with pure invention, and typical of “geeks” who “forget food, sleep, friends, love everything”, and “abandon the world around them”. Edison is a “douchebag”, in part for his statement “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”

The words sell and success leap out, quickly leading the reader to assume Edison was just in it for the money (as he, like many others, may have been), but let’s look at that quote a little more closely. Actually, he says that utility is what he’s after – useful things, that people will actually use. Is that so bad? Thinking of the ends as well as the means can be a moral position as well as a business decision.

While I, as someone who deals professionally with scientific heritage, am very much sympathetic to the aim of preserving an early 20th century building designed for scientific work, I harbour a tiny misgiving about what this background to the campaign might do for its future (if all goes to plan) as a science centre.

Science centres, as opposed to history of science museums, tend to present knowledge in a somewhat disembodied way, as packages of information separated from the contexts – the period, the place, the people, the “working worlds” – in which they were produced and used. However, a science centre located in an historic building that brings direct reminders of such real-world things should be a perfect place to explore how science actually happens in the world: looking at science as a process that concerns us all, not just science geeks.

It would be extremely churlish of me not to wish success to a non-profit campaign for an educational facility. Likewise, given the success of the campaign, who am I to argue with the power of fairy-stories? Yet with this connection to a celebration of Tesla as a heroic genius, lauded for choosing to withdraw from the world (despite his large number of patents and involvement with businesses and the military), I fear that the real advantage of the unique location may be lost.

Dorset’s cabinets of curiosity

My Easter break took me to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast for a few days of walks, searching for fossils on the beach and skipping showers by heading into second-hand book shops and little museums. The weather, and the light, were gloriously changeable.

Both of these images were taken at West Bay, near Bridport, one on and the other below the strikingly golden sandstone cliffs.

The museums, despite being of fairly similar size, were equally variable. All had something to offer, and evidently had enthusiastic staff and good relationships with local schools, but differences in funding (perhaps), the imagination and knowledge of curators (probably), the possibilities of the location (certainly) and use by visitors all played their part in making our visits more or less engaged.

The common themes, unsurprisingly, were the area’s relationship with the sea and the unrivalled geological heritage. There were more ammonites than several sticks could be shaken at, and more than a handful of Mary Annings. Anning, of course, was the 19th-century Lyme Regis woman who followed her father into business as a vendor of fossils, making her name with a series of extraordinary finds, including an ichthyosaur skeleton when she was only 12. Anning’s sales were not just to visitors and local school children – although they bought from her shop too – but to the metropolitan geological elites, like Henry de la BecheWilliam Buckland and Richard Owen. These and many other visiting geologists were shown around the beaches, learnt the tricks of the trade and gained from the knowledge of Miss Anning.

Of the three main museum visits we made, perhaps the most disappointing was the Dinosaur Museum in Dorchester. To be fair, we visited on a very wet Easter Monday with a ton of other kids and parents, but its rather Jurassic Park-style flyers and fairly hefty entry price led us to hope for more than a series of rather disorganised rooms with dog-eared labels and interpretation panels in various styles crowding the walls. There were useful attempts to reach a range of learning styles – lift-up things, feel-inside things, listen-to-things, films, computer displays – but it felt a little as if each new idea was thrown into the mix, lacking a sense of general approach or coherence. The same was true for real fossils, replicas and models, meaning that the most important artefacts could get completely lost. A quieter day, or a more organised visit, might, of course, do a great deal more with everything that was there.

On the same wet day we also took in the local history-focused Bridport Museum. This was bound to be a winner for me as it told the story of Bridport’s rope and net-making industries (in which my grandfather had worked for decades), although it was, perhaps, a little too book-on-the-wall, text-panel heavy. The main gallery was, however, complimented by a newer display focusing on oral history. The small room of fossils worked for my son – some touching allowed, but an uncluttered and impressive display. Upstairs, small collections of flint tools and Roman artefacts gave a sense of the long history of the area. Slightly randomly, the neighbouring rooms included local sporting activities, coastal erosion and costume but, I guess, this the the eclectic joy of a local history collection and small museum. The bonus was that it was all free – which meant, in fact, that we came back for a second visit.

My favourite visit, perhaps predictably, was to the Lyme Regis Museum. It is a wonderfully eccentric building, in a lovely town, with fantastic links to science, art and literature. The quality of displays is reflected in the website, which allows a full tour of the galleries. It is, as it always has been, largely volunteer-run but the more-than-100-year history of the place, and the interest of both visitors and locals in Lyme, its landscape and history, have created a lovely museum experience. As their website says, “Our collections are unusually rich for a small museum and we have a lot of good stories to tell”. Three stories stick with me. One, of course, is Mary Anning’s life, work, collections and connections (you’ve got to love a table made of fossilised poo – thanks Miss A and Dr Buckland!), another is part of the museum’s own history, with its curator John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and, finally, there was a display relating to shipwreck and rescue, which brought home the ordinary danger of living with the sea.

The success of the Lyme museum was, above all, ensured by the quality of the collections. However, one of the standout exhibits was actually an interactive display for children called the Cabinet of Curiosities, borrowed from the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. This could not have worked had there been more than about three children trying to use it together, but with space and time to explore, it was great fun with a huge amount of interest literally packed into a box. You can get some idea of it from the website of the artist-designers. And as you can see here, it certainly attracted  those of the right height:

It had drawers to open, small fossils to look at with small magnifying glasses, things to look at from below, geological layers to manipulate, a geological timeline running all round the exterior, a kind of monster-dinosaur and mirrors mirage inside the box and, my favourite part, a little theatre showing an animated film about the faking of fossils in the 19th century:

It goes to show what good imagination and research can achieve in a very small space. It was definitely not just for kids, although the size and height – and the ability to get underneath it – certainly made them feel it was designed especially for them. Geological collecting perhaps lends itself particularly well to the cabinet conceit, but I suspect that it would be a fun, and probably useful, exercise to think about how any topic  might be presented in a similar way. Every home/museum/school should have one!

On this day: the role of anniversaries

Newspapers, magazines, blogs and Twitter are awash with anniversaries. Today’s Birthdays, On this Day in History, #OTD and so on greet me every morning. I know a handful of famous people or events that share my birthday, and I am usually aware of forthcoming anniversaries for the people or institutions that I study. It cannot have escaped your attention that this year sees a Dickens anniversary and a royal jubilee. But why should it be in any way meaningful?

There is, of course, a meaningful history attached to the celebration of anniversaries, and one that has been studied by a number of historians. Looking at which, why and how famous individuals have been remembered for centenaries, bicentenaries and tercentenaries can tell us a great deal about how people view their own time, and how they make sense of their heritage, their nation, their discipline or their institutions. It is a product of that age of invented traditions, the 19th century. One of the scene-setters was the Shakespearian tercentenary in 1864, for which an ambitious programme of events was organised. By the early 20th-century such celebrations abounded: Shakespeare again in 1916, James Watt in 1919, Newton in 1927, Faraday in 1931, and many, many more. Many of the themes are touched on in this fascinating article on the Watt and Faraday celebrations, by Christine Macleod and Jennifer Tann (£).

Because of my sense of the fact that such celebrations tend to say more about us than they help develop a real understanding of the past, I’ve been pretty sceptical about anniversaries. This tendency was probably not helped by the fact that for three or four years it was my job to create a list of forthcoming anniversaries for the newsletter of the British Society for the History of Science (back issues here: there’s plenty more interesting stuff in there than these lists!). I was told by my elders and betters that it was a tradition and much appreciated by our members. In an era before Wikipedia, it probably was, but in my innocence I did not understand why.

Since entering the ‘real world’ of grant applications, large organisations and media relations, my eyes have been opened. While I still can’t quite understand why dates separated by a year, a decade, a century or whatever should be so readily accepted as having significance, I now understand why historians go along with it readily enough.

An anniversary seems to be the only way that history can be accepted as news, barring a really dramatic archival or archaeological discovery. Journalists, editors and readers are, it seems, more prepared to accept a story on an event/book/exhibition if it is connected to an anniversary – and, therefore, somehow carrying its own logic and relevance. Thus, publishers, directors and funders are more likely to be convinced that your idea is worth a punt. It also, of course, carries a natural deadline that helps to focus efforts, gain momentum and generate collective endeavour. A general sense that something must be done to celebrate this or draw attention to that can coalesce much more easily around a forthcoming anniversary.

It would seem that I have now become the anniversary’s greatest fan. Today I was delighted to see the marking of the 250th anniversary of Tobias Mayer’s death with a great post over at The Renaissance Mathematicus. I pointed readers of the Longitude Project blog toward it, especially since the bicentenary Nevil Maskelyne’s death last year was an excuse for a number of posts creating a more rounded portrait of the erstwhile ‘longitude villain’. The anniversary made it sensible to have a symposium devoted to the man, and also got him into New Scientist.

Of course, the whole Longitude Project, and the NMM’s forthcoming exhibition on longitude are also knowingly linked to the 2014 tercentenary of the first Longitude Act. I am now beginning to think that it would be worthwhile to start planning for the 350th anniversary of the Royal Observatory (OK, it’s not until 2025, but in the scheme of things, in a busy life, that’s not really so far off, if we’re to pull of a significant redisplay as well as suitable events). These institutional beginnings do, at least, carry a little more weight than birth and death anniversaries, that mark the two events in a life that the hero has least control over, but why should “founded 300 years ago” mean any more than “founded 298 years ago”?

Are we letting the cart lead the horse, in research terms? Should we be working harder to sell what we really think is significant instead of going for the easy option? Are anniversaries a harmless means of raising awareness, or can they obscure the importance of history: accounts, stories and interpretations which are for everyday, or perhaps for some unplanned particular day, and not just once every century. Did the huge Darwin bicentenary of 2010 achieve much, beyond sating everyone’s thirst for talks and TV programmes about the man? Have we, in short, made ourselves slaves to the anniversary?

Objects and storytelling

Some weeks ago on the Medical Museion blog, Thomas Soderqvist wrote an interesting and, perhaps, provocative post on Narrativity in exhibition making, suggesting that “the current enthusiasm” for stories, storytelling and narrative in object displays “is problematic”. As an historian, this idea fits into my training: I understand where Thomas is coming from and largely […]

Cretan skies and Macedonian museums

I have recently returned from a thoroughly enjoyable and mostly relaxing family holiday in Greece – a week in Crete, near Chania on the north-west coast, followed by a few days in Thessaloniki. Most of the first week was spent by the pool and on the beach – a genuine first for a Higgitt holiday. Since I actually managed to do some reading, despite the presence of a four-year-old, it’s an experiment I plan to repeat.

This really was the view from our room (taken on my iPhone).

As well as books, I brought along a pair of binoculars with the hope of doing a tiny bit of stargazing. I have fond memories of a long-ago holiday in Portugal, staying in a converted hill-top windmill, when my dad helped me to see Jupiter’s brightest satellites with his binoculars. (Little did I know then that I would later know something about their discoverer, Galileo, and their use for determining longitude on land.) Apart from some moments of looking skyward when out in the countryside, and a view of the moon through the Royal Observatory’s 28-inch telescope, that has really been it for me and actual astronomical observing.

Obviously this Perseid is not mine, but from the NASA site and 2006.

I was pretty much foiled on this holiday as we were staying nearer the city and other well-lit areas than I had anticipated. In fact, I’ve seen nearly as many stars on a clear night in London, and so my son’s first view of the milky way is still ahead of him. However, we were both rewarded by some great views of a daytime moon – which passed from the west across the blue, blue skies above the sea, lasting even until a Mediterranean lunchtime – and some glorious sunsets. On our second night, all alone on our hotel room’s balcony, I was lucky enough to look up from my book to see a large, bright meteor – a Perseid, I assume – burning up as it moved vertically downwards, apparently in no tearing hurry: transitory, but no lightening flash.

Apart from the remarkable appearance of some clouds(!) that flurried across the sky in what counted as a major bit of weather for an August day in Crete, there was one other notable thing in the skies: fighter jets. Initially, unthinkingly, I assumed that they were just in the area for some sort of exercise, and it was only when I looked at the map and noticed that the water to the south of Crete is the Libyan Sea did I work out just where they were flying and why. Waiting a few days later at Chania airport we saw – and heard – them taking off and spotted the lines of military hangers beyond the civilian runways.

The second part of our holiday was a few days in the fascinating city of Thessaloniki, the capital of the Greek periphery of Central Macedonia. It was certainly hot, traffic-filled and hard work after our restful week in Crete, but it is a city packed full of history – and bars. (Perhaps one better for our 20s and pre-parenthood!) It has inspired me to get on with reading Mark Mazower’s Salonika: City of Ghosts, which has been sitting on our shelves for some time. Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman Empires – this place had seen them all, as well as being a centre of Jewish life and culture, before the Nazi occupation.

At least in the heat of August, Thessaloniki does not seem to be much of a tourist city, which seems a shame as there are some wonderful things to see, some of which have clearly had serious money spent on them in recent years. I just hope they survive the current economic crisis. As well as a host of Roman remains, including the wonderful Rotunda, and Byzantine walls and churches, the city is blessed with some really great museums. Firstly there was a city history museum, within the historic White Tower. This had masses of information via the audioguide and some innovative design (some of which, my guidebook told me, had something to do with Apple) as well as the landmark building and fantastic view to pull in such punters as were available. We all enjoyed the spiral stairs, maze of rooms and view, and the design and content were great for the adults, if not the little kid.

Sadly, two of the best museums had almost no visitors apart from us. These were the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Byzantine Culture, both in 20th-century buildings (1960s and 1990s respectively) and both with recently revamped displays. I have, in my life, seen plenty of southern European archaeological museums, which used to be rows and rows of stuff in dusty cases, with minimal labels. I was amazed to see how these places seemed to have skipped a whole half century of museology, from the early 20th right into the 21st. They looked wonderful, and they made the pots, statues, paintings and mosaics speak of past cultures rather than simply themselves. In addition, there was engagement with the history of the archaeology that ensured these objects are with us today, and the more recent history, science and museology that was both informative and pleasingly reflexive.

Museum of Byzantine Culture
Gold wreath from the Archaeological Museum

Both museums were a joy to be in, even with a young child (although I would like to have had the chance to go back by myself). My son particularly enjoyed a film that showed traditional glass-making techniques and a series of rather whizzy interactive displays in an exhibition called, pleasingly, ‘From Fragments to Pixels‘. I must also tip my hat to the lovely-looking, shady courtyard café-restaurants. If you’re ever in Thessaloniki, go to one of these for a frappé then, invigorated, immerse yourself in some real ancient treasures.