blahflowers: (Jiving Girl)
[personal profile] blahflowers
Okay, truth be told I don't dislike Steampunk. I quite like the aesthetic but maybe inside the subculture it's not the fetishism of fashion in order to justify ignoring British colonialism of the 18th and 19th century. Maybe that's just how it looks from the outside. When I expressed this view to a friend of mine yesterday whilst at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, an indignant lady dressed all in black with requisite top hat felt it necessary to interject into the conversation that she didn't feel Steampunk was anything like that and that she spoke as a colonial. She had an Australian accent. She was white.

Gown by Karen 'Lady Elsie' Grover, 'Longitude Punk'd', Royal Observatory Greenwich Celatone by Matthew Dockrey, 'Longitude Punk'd', Royal Observatory Greenwich Tancre's Observation Device and Calculator by John 'Major Tinker' Naylor, 'Longitude Punk'd', Royal Observatory Greenwich Orrery Gown by Jema 'Emilly Ladybird' Hewitt, 'Longitude Punk'd', Royal Observatory Greenwich Clockwork Chelengk by Jema 'Emilly Ladybird' Hewitt, 'Longitude Punk'd', Royal Observatory Greenwich

So I went to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich yesterday. I seem to remember that I went there once before, but I can't remember exactly when it was or why. This time it was mainly to see a new exhibition called Longitude Punked. The minimal information on the website says it
"celebrates the creations of wacky inventors, stargazing scientists and extremely elegant explorers of the 18th century. Royal Museums Greenwich has commissioned 8 UK Steampunk artists to create works inspired by the technical inventions that were presented to the board of longitude between 1714 and 1828."
This seemed fun and interesting and so I made my way there. Because I have no memory of visiting the part of the Observatory that had this display I don't know what it's usually like. What it looked like was that normally there would be a display of things to do with navigation at sea. It would be informative and, to the best of anyone's knowledge, accurate. What it was now was half a display of things to do with navigation at sea that was deliberately captioned with humorous and entirely inaccurate signs provided by Robert Rankin. I have nothing against Rankin, I quite like his books even though they all have basically the one plot which never manages to last the entirety of the story. But I think it's sad that, in what they feel is an important anniversary year, the Observatory have basically said "we're not going to bother with any of that boring" < airquotes >"history" < airquotes > "malarkey, no we're going a hundred percent fictional! And we're going to do it with steampunk! Because that's what all the cool kids are into these days, what with their i-telephones and their addiction to snuff." So from a design point of view this exhibition was lovely, I'm just not sure why they did it this way. I don't think the Natural History Museum would replace its animatronic dinosaurs with My Little Ponys with new horns designed by China Mieville. I'm uneasy about a science institution inventing history, after all, when Ken Ham does this we rip the piss. It's not that they put up false information, it's that they appear to have taken the correct information down as well.

The clothes on display are fantastic and I wish I had both the gowns and the figure to show them off to their best. The inventions are chrome and metal which seems to be what something has to be made out of to be Steampunk so... well done? The exhibition is at least free once you have paid to get in and the Observatory is a nice small venue to visit if you're in the area.

It's oddly run but I suspect that the Observatory managers would say it's a listed site and they can't do anything to alter things to make it more straightforward. You go in through the entrance, after waiting for all the people who decide to leave by the entrance because of people flow. You go through a small room which could be used as a ticket hall but isn't. When you come out the other side you have to turn right and go around the corner to find the actual ticket hall. It has four desks at which you can buy your entrance tickets and then get in the way of other people as you try to leave. By the way, the Observatory actually contains two separate places that you may wish to visit, namely the Observatory and all its buildings and there is also the Peter Harrison Planetarium. You'll need a separate ticket for that. You can buy a combined ticket for both at either the Observatory or the Planetarium but I don't remember seeing any big signs at either place saying you could do this. I think you only find this out if you look at the small print on the map to all the Royal Museums of Greenwich or if you should happen to ask the staff but if you're at the Observatory and then decide to pop down to the Planetarium you have to go through the main Observatory building, which contains its permanent museum display and shop, emerge into that first entrance hall I mentioned above and then walk out and along to the Planetarium. If you then want to come back to the Observatory you have to go through their entrance hall again. Fiddly and irritating but I presume they aren't allowed to build an extra outside path or something.

Curator of Longitude Punk'd @ ROG replies

Date: 2014-05-07 10:14 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] heloisefb
Dear Loz

Thanks so much for reviewing Longitude Punk'd and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm glad you liked Robert Rankin's 'Rime of the Ancient Commodore' signs and Dr Geof's fictional labels.

My name is Heloise Finch-Boyer and I'm curator of Longitude Punk'd. I just want to reassure you that despite the humour and the fictional nature of the show, we are not entirely jettisoning history here at the museum!

Longitude Punk'd is celebrating the 300th anniversary of the first Longitude Act. However it is a minor gallery which, from July, will run alongside our major exhibition "Ships, Clocks and Stars: the quest for longitude", the result of a 5 year academic project between the National Maritime Museum and the University of Cambridge. This much larger exhibition will celebrate John Harrison, Nevil Maskelyne and other scientists and explorers, and it opens in the Samy Ofer wing down the hill at the Maritime Museum

Owing to longstanding museum commitments it was impossible to open the two galleries at the same time. Ships Clocks and Stars will be explaining this story in full, without fictional content.

Longitude Punk'd uses fiction not specifically to attract "the cool kids with their i-telephones" (they sound great though) but more generally new visitors who might have heard of the Royal Observatory Greenwich but who have never been. We want to attract people who enjoy having emotional responses (humour, wonder, aesthetic appreciation) to art and museums in order that they might enjoy the history of science in a different way. We hope that by using a mix of history and fiction we will attract these people who would not otherwise visit or feel interested in the history of science.

In trying to distinguish fact from fiction, I believe that we look again, and we look closer. And surely inspection, evaluation and scrutiny are what science and history are all about?

Thanks for your comments and pictures of the show

Heloise Finch-Boyer


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