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.

Longitude in Lisbon

Cross-posted from the Longitude Project Blog.

I have just returned from a visit to Lisbon, where I had been invited to speak about the Longitude Act and project at the Seminário Nacional de Historia da Matemática. An added bonus of the visit was that an exhibition marking the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act had just opened at the Museu da Marinha.

It was a small display on the first floor that succeeding in getting across many of the key points about the Act, the various contenders for rewards and the Portuguese context. There were three cases of books, tables and charts, two of navigational instruments and a series of wall text and graphic panels.

The first panel was welcome reading, pointing out a long history, several valid areas of research and the development of two of these – the chronometer and lunar distances – as workable solutions in the second half of the 18th century. Although John Harrison was mentioned in the panel dealing with the development of timekeepers, the exhibition did not present either him or chronometers as the most significant part of the story.

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Other panels were devoted to the navigational methods used before the Act, magnetic variation, Jupiter’s satellites, lunar distances, chronometers and the Portuguese context. The last of these included the role of Jupiter’s satellites in settling longitudes on land, especially those that had been contested by Spain and Portugal.

IMG_0147Objects included an altaziumth compass (to measure magnetic variation), a telescope (linking to Jupiter’s satellites, but not a type that could have been used for this tricky observation) a box chronometer and several instruments for astronomical observation.

Included among the printed material were books on navigation, ephemerides and almanacs. Among them were an 18th-century edition of the Nautical Almanac, a French account of testing timekeepers at sea, and several Portuguese ephemerides, including those based on the observations of the observatory at Coimbra University.

Two early charts on display also made use of a Portuguese prime meridian, and theIMG_0152 19th-century almanacs clearly played on a sense of history – a reminder of Portugal’s stellar role in maritime navigation in the past – and a claim to a central position in the globe, marking the division of the two hemispheres and the old and new worlds.

I got a good sense of the importance of Portugal’s maritime past to the nation during my visit to Lisbon. The conference was held at the Escola Naval where naval history and, by extension, the histories of navigation, mathematics and astronomy, were very evident. While Greenwich and other maritime location in Britain tend to celebrate the 18th-century Navy above all, many sites in Lisbon have (mostly 20th-century) paintings, mosaics and statues to the heroic navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries.

I was fascinated to learn about the myth-making surrounding the Sagres “School of Navigation“, supposedly founded by Henry the Navigator, and also the extent to which the regime of the 20th-century dictatorship had consciously developed and celebrated this heroic maritime and imperial history – to the benefit of institutions like the Naval School, observatory, museum and planetarium.

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Being a guest at the naval base, and visiting the naval museum (still directed by a uniformed naval officer, who was kind enough to guide me around), was a truly memorable experience. I particularly enjoyed being entertained over lunch in the officers’ dining room with stories of the school, and having to teach and learn lunar navigation techniques.

The saying in the Portuguese Navy is that “the moon lies”, emphasising all the many things that can go wrong with instruments, observations and calculations, especially when officers are less and less used to performing them. However, the tables and sextants are still there as back up, not least because of concern about the ease with which GPS signals can be blocked or (more dangerously) tampered with.

Best of all, I was told a story of a ship’s commander, making for a large island but hampered by very poor weather and the loss of one navigation system after another. Left with just radar and dead reckoning, for a moment the moon appeared and he took his chance to take observations. Making his calculations, he couldn’t believe the result: “the moon lies”, he said to himself. But, continuing on his course, the island still didn’t appear and, eventually, he decided to go back to the lunar observation and try his luck – radar soon picked up the target destination.

It sounded like the tale of an old salty sea dog but, later that day, I met the man himself. He was in youthful middle age. The moon sometimes lies but, it turns out, sometimes, even now, she can still be pretty helpful.

 

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 […]