The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich usually throws a good exhibition. They've done Nelson, they've done astronomy, and now they're doing time. Specifically they're doing Longitude, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act in July 1714. The exhibition is called Ships, Clocks & Stars, which is the museum's attempt to make a fairly obscure theme sound slightly more exciting. I'm not convincing the title is luring people in, but a steady stream of visitors was trotting round the exhibition last week which bodes well for its six month run.
The downstairs gallery kicks off with a video of the rolling sea and also a Sponsor Statement, which is the usual pile of corporate guff, but thanks for all the money. First up we have to discover what longitude is and why it was critically important, and this is well explained within a giant globe. Britain's sea trade relied on ships knowing precisely where they were, and while north-south could be determined from the sky, east-west was impossible to determine accurately. The government put up a £20000 prize, a life-changing amount in its time, and Britons chased after it with a variety of schemes. Some were crackpot, which fills another room, while two shone through, and the remainder of the exhibition concentrates on those.
Chief of these were John Harrison's clocks, more normally to be seen in the Royal Observatory on the hill, but moved down to the museum until the New Year. The intricately mechanical H1, H2 and H3 appear in one display case, while the much smaller H4 is more easily overlooked alongside. Indeed many visitors walked straight past the victorious pocketwatch without giving it a second glance, before discovering in the subsequent rooms quite how ground-breakingly important it was. Some interesting graphic devices and screens keep what could be a dry story fresh, although you'll probably not want to drag any smaller children round.
The other successful method of calculating longitude involved taking measurements of the phases of the moon. This wasn't easy on a ship, plus you had to be an expert mathematician to do the calculations, so the timekeeper method generally worked rather better. But this is a good excuse for the museum to get several gleaming scientific instruments out of its archive, and this fills up much of the rest of the exhibition. It's no blockbuster overall, but it's interesting enough, and it's good to explore a key historical story that challenges intellectually.
Tickets cost £8.50, which also gets you a free look around the Royal Observatory. Ditto tickets for the Royal Observatory cost £8.50 and also get you a free look round the Ships, Clocks & Stars exhibition. I'd not been round the Royal Observatory since they introduced an admission charge in 2011, so it was good to visit again and see what's changed. Most of the time stuff has been temporarily removed, and the space filled with a collection of steampunk creations with a fictional narrative. It's not what you'd expect, and I doubt most of the visitors quite understood what was going on, but it's sparky and fun, if not entirely relevant.
The biggest change since the observatory started charging is in the composition of the crowd. Previously there'd be Britons in amongst the visitors, but on my visit they seemed conspicuously absent. Instead most people here are foreign visitors "doing London", and shuffling round the building taking in the heritage sights. And the most depressing difference is in the main courtyard where the meridian line cuts across the cobbles. Where this used to be an informal free-for-all, now a long queue builds up so that each and every visitor can have their minute astride the meridian. They wait for ages for the chance to pose in front of the metal sculpture... grin, snap, post to Facebook and move on. If you've been missing the chance to do the same, Ships, Clocks & Stars might inspire you to see zero degrees longitude again.