The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, was founded in 1675 by King Charles II, "to find the so-much desired longitude of places." Maritime navigation was one of the most important requirements of a sea-faring nation keen to build new trade partnerships, empires and scientific knowledge. But in the seventeenth century, one problem stood in the way of accurate navigation: the ''longitude problem''. Britain''s answer to calls for a longitude solution was to found a scientific institution - the Royal Observatory - which would look to the heavens for a means to navigate safely.
More than three centuries later, the Royal Observatory still looks to the heavens - but no longer to map the stars for the use of ship''s navigators. Since the 1950s, the Royal Observatory has been part of the National Maritime Museum, offering to the one-million people who visit each year a rich blend of historic buildings, world-class collections of artefacts, a state-of-the-art planetarium, and the ''shock of the real'' that one feels when standing in a World Heritage Site that actually defines the measurement of time and space. The Prime Meridian of the world, longitude zero degrees, passes through the Royal Observatory''s courtyard. This line, on which Greenwich Mean Time is measured, is the reference point for the global time zone system, set up in 1884.
The ''Time and Space' Project was conceived in 2003 as a means to update the historical galleries at the Royal Observatory, to provide substantially improved access to the historic buildings and galleries, to improve visitor facilities, and to set up a centre of excellence for astronomy education with the creation of the 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetarium, Weller Astronomy Galleries and the Lloyd''s Register Learning Centre. The first completed phase of the project was the Time Galleries, which opened in February 2006 - a total redisplay of the main galleries devoted to timekeeping and navigation which trebled the number of artefacts on display to the public.
Four new galleries opened: Time and Longitude, telling the story of maritime navigation and timekeeping; Time and Greenwich, the tale of Greenwich Mean Time; Time For The Navy, the Royal Observatory''s unique role in providing chronometers to Britain''s Royal Navy; and Time and Society, a personal view of time in our everyday lives.
The Time and Space Project received its principal support and funding from the UK Government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Specific funding for the Time Galleries came from three main sources. 25% of the total cost was covered by the National Maritime Museum itself. The remainder was covered by grants from the Millennium Commission's ReDiscover Fund and The Wolfson Foundation.
One of the key aims of the Time and Space Project was to broaden access to the Museum's collections and engage a wider demographic of the local community in its activities. The key challenge of the Time Galleries was to make fully accessible a potentially difficult subject matter for a broad, non-specialist audience. The new exhibits afford greater intellectual and physical access to uniquely important collections of precision timekeepers and scientific instruments, many of which have never been seen before by the public. The galleries include interactive elements, and tell the human aspect of time, relating the stories to people and the personalities involved. Using a layered approach to the gallery narratives, visitors can approach the subjects at different levels, meaning the displays can appeal to everyone, from families and tourists to historians and subject specialists.
A few months after they opened, the Time Galleries were awarded the prestigious 2006 ''Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits'' by the Society for the History of Technology. The Award Committee noted that the suite of galleries "draws on the Royal Observatory''s rich collection of artefacts and deep wells of curatorial and conservation expertise." It commended the "ingenious interactive displays" and special mention was made of the many clocks displayed in full working condition, demonstrating an "affinity for both artefact and audience". Finally, the Award Committee judged that the curators had "created a genuinely inspirational and engaging set of spaces, sensitively designed, rich with information and interest".
The exhibition team was formed of people with a broad range of experience and expertise. The project was led by Louise King who came to the National Maritime Museum with a wealth of experience of designing, curating and managing exhibitions in the Museum and Cultural Heritage sector. The lead curators were Gloria Clifton, the Head of the Royal Observatory and a renowned scholar of scientific instruments, and David Rooney, Curator of Timekeeping with a background in physics and the history of technology and experience of curating object-rich exhibitions of technological items.
Conservation specialism came from Jonathan Betts, Curator of Horology and a well-known champion of horological conservation and its unique challenges. External consultants and contractors formed the rest of the team, including designers Casson Mann and Thomas Matthews, construction and project management from Fraser Randall, content development from Tim Gardom Associates, and Audio Visual design and production from NewAngle.
The ambitions of the project were large but the footprint of the galleries small, and one of the key challenges for the team was to create rich and meaningful interpretation experiences in a set of domestic rooms. One of the ways that this has been achieved has been through the selective use of digital media as part of the interpretative framework. The ls"John Harrison Interactive' in particular demonstrates how 120 rare and fragile archive manuscripts can be scanned and interpreted, and then accessed by a mass audience using a sophisticated and engaging graphic interface, occupying a small area in the restricted space of the gallery.
Furthermore, any project involving listed historic buildings, priceless and unique collections of artefacts, and necessarily complex design requirements will encounter challenges on the way to completion. But the driving force behind the Time Galleries project was a shared passion and belief in increasing public engagement in a unique site of worldwide cultural significance. Everyone involved, therefore, had a strong will to overcome any problems so that the project would succeed in meeting its aims. The Royal Observatory and National Maritime Museum therefore extend a warm invitation to everyone involved with the 2007 ''Best in Heritage'' experience to visit Greenwich and to see the Time Galleries - and to judge for themselves how well those aims were met.
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