Observatory Sites and Networks since 1780

Lead Research Organisation: National Maritime Museum
Department Name: Research


Taking advantage of scholarly, institutional and public interest generated by the forthcoming 350th anniversary of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (ROG) in 2025, this project aims to create a network through which to share knowledge on and generate research into the histories, interpretation and preservation of historic observatory sites and buildings around the world. As existing accounts are often focused on particular institutions, nations or empires, the opportunity to compare and connect observatory histories and heritage in different countries will be a significant benefit. We propose to hold four events that will bring together UK and international scholars who research observatory histories with curators, educators, astronomers and others who work within relevant sites today. These events will be invited workshops, each representing observatories and scholarship from several different countries, on the following themes:

1) 'Absorbing, adapting and influencing new technologies': will explore the processes by which new disciplines, techniques and instrumentation were taken up within observatories in the 19th and 20th centuries and how they were influenced by local, national, imperial and international contexts.
2) 'Living and working at the observatory': will consider observatories as workplaces and homes, investigating the experiences and opportunities of the men, women and children connected to them, from directors and assistants to families and hired labour.
3) 'Historic observatory networks': will explore connections between observatories, which relied on the circulation of knowledge, texts, instruments and people, and the relationships between national, provincial, colonial and amateur observatories.
4) 'Contemporary observatory networks': will focus on current opportunities and challenges in the preservation and interpretation of observatory sites, learning from previous experience and drawing on the histories explored in the previous workshops

As our understanding of these themes are closely informed by other scholarship, including histories of imperialism, work, domestic life and gender, we intend to include researchers working in these areas. The workshops will be hosted by five different institutions that care for observatory sites and/or object or manuscript and book collections - Royal Museums Greenwich (which includes the ROG and holds its object and book collections), Cambridge University Library (which holds the archives of the ROG and its successor the Royal Greenwich Observatory), the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (including its Crawford Collection of historic astronomical books and archive), National Museums Scotland (which cares for the ROE's historic instruments), and Armagh Observatory and Planetarium (including its historic collections). They will thus create institutional connections as well as drawing attention to the practical requirements of preserving such heritage and the opportunities they offer to researchers.

By bringing together a disparate group of subjects and specialists, we envisage that this network will lead to many tangible outputs for both academic and public audiences that will be informed by a wider range of scholarship and a better understanding of international connections and comparisons. Researchers will gain from new collaborations and openings for research, particularly with regard to the material culture of astronomical heritage, while those responsible for the conservation and interpretation of historic observatories will gain support from a new network of shared expertise and advice. Curators will gain by identifying new stories that explore the global context behind their institutions' histories and collections to create more engaging displays, allowing them to share this research with a diverse community of museum visitors. A planned range of academic and non-specialist publications, both in print and online, will extend this project's reach even further.


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