London: Ships, Clocks, & Stars + Longitude Punk’d

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And so my treks around London continue (for once, I think I might actually see every special exhibit currently here that I wanted to see, plus some I didn’t!).  Lured by those Brazilian churros yet again, I made my way out to Greenwich last week for the first time in months, only to discover that the churro stand isn’t in Greenwich Market on Wednesdays anymore.  Thankfully, I was planning on visiting some museums out there anyway, so my voyage was not made in vain (though I was very hungry and cranky going churro-less).

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Although I often don’t really see the point of steampunk, I’d nonetheless wanted to see Longitude Punk’d at the Royal Observatory for a while, and as £8.50 currently gets you a combined ticket to the Observatory and the special exhibit at the National Maritime Museum, there was really no time like the present.  I began with Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, housed in the downstairs galleries of the National Maritime Museum, as it seemed like it would probably be the less interesting of the two exhibits.  I wasn’t wrong about that.

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Basically, as ship technology improved and sailors were able to travel farther distances, the main thing holding back exploration and navigation was the problem of calculating longitude at sea (well, and scurvy, but they were working on that too).  Latitude was no problem, as you can just do some quick calculations based on the angle between the North Star and the horizon (I use “you” in a general sense here, as I certainly am not going to be calculating any damn angles.  I hate geometry), but to calculate longitude, you need an extremely accurate clock, which for reasons I probably got into when I was writing about the Clockmakers’ Museum, was a tricky thing to achieve at sea.  To this end, rewards of up to £20,000 were offered, until John Harrison came through with his crazily complex clock. Actually, I’m pretty sure I also said this in my post about the Clockmakers’ Museum, but I still don’t really want to get into the science or the technology here, because I don’t fully understand it, and it kind of bores me.  This is probably why I didn’t enjoy The Quest for Longitude very much, as 80% of the content was about the science behind longitude and the way the clocks were made, and I found my eyes glazing over as I was trying to read the captions (side note, I only just discovered, from the video inside the exhibit, that British people pronounce “longitude” with a hard “g.”  I don’t know how I lived here for six years without knowing that.  No wonder the guy at the admissions desk initially seemed confused when I tried to buy a ticket).

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However, I do seize on any points of interest where I can, so the exhibit wasn’t a total bust.  There was a small room devoted to the voyages of Captain Cook (and that dishy Joseph Banks), which I remain fascinated by, and even more enticingly, a lone case containing objects belonging to Captain Bligh, that notorious captain of the Bounty who was set adrift in a small boat with 18 of his men by the mutinous Fletcher Christian.  I think Bligh’s feat of navigation was just incredible (really must get around to reading that book about the Bounty that’s been sitting on my bookshelves), and I was enthralled by the artefacts here from that journey:  a bullet Bligh used to weigh out bread, a small cup (shot glass sized) for liquid rations, and a coconut bowl that he took his own meagre meals from.  If the whole exhibit had been on Cook, Bligh, and other explorers like them, I would have been thrilled (maybe that’s what they should have next?) but alas, the title did promise longitude, and that is mainly what was delivered.  One other item of note was an insulated suit worn by Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, when he was taking calculations in the freezing Royal Observatory, of which more later.  Anyway, it seems like I mainly took issue with this exhibit for living up to its description, so it’s really my own fault that I didn’t enjoy it, knowing that I’m not that interested in technology and such.  So I’ll give it 3/5 with the caveat that if you’re like me and aren’t very mechanically minded, this probably isn’t the exhibit for you.

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Moving on…I next talked myself into taking that long, steep trudge up the hill to the Royal Observatory (if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I mean) to see the steampunk wonders of Longitude Punk’d.  It is sort of the partner exhibit to The Quest for Longitude – whereas the National Maritime Museum was all business, the Royal Observatory took on the fun side of navigation.  The premise behind the exhibit, as outlined in a cute little booklet at the entrance, was that a mysterious Georgian Commodore took on the task of solving the problem of longitude…with the help of trained Kiwi birds.  The exhibit was thus dedicated to the strange explorations of this imaginary Commodore, and the “alternative history” of many of the other figures of the time.  It was based inside Flamsteed House, and spread out throughout the building; initially with one piece in each room, and then a final gallery doused with cheeky steampunk madness (the pictures throughout this post are taken from Longitude Punk’d, as The Quest for Longitude didn’t allow photography).

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This included a range of fantastic clothing, like Captain Cook’s jacket with a map painted on so he would never get lost again, a constellation dress (shown before the previous paragraph, and absolutely gorgeous), the solar system dress shown above, and another example of a useful quilted suit that wasn’t too far off from the actual suit used by Maskelyne (I have to wonder if the designer saw the original). My favourite part was undeniably the gallery right at the end though (and this despite the presence of many loud obnoxious teenagers who didn’t know how to conduct themselves properly in a museum), which was a mix of steampunk creations and normal looking maritime art with hilarious cheeky captions.  For example:

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And (assuming you can read the caption through the shadows of the weird way I curl my fingers when taking a phone picture):

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And so on, as most of the captions in here literally gave me a good chuckle (which probably looked creepy, as I was there by myself, quietly laughing in the corner).  I guess it’s even funnier if you know the real history behind it, so I suppose it was useful in the end that I went to the National Maritime Museum first (and also that I just happened to be reading a book on maps at the time that discussed the conference that led to the Prime Meridian being set in Greenwich); I guess these museums know what they’re doing after all.

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I really really loved how clever and beautiful everything in this exhibit was; I think the creators must have a sense of humour similar to mine, and I really do recommend checking it out before it finishes in January.  Longitude Punk’d is only in one building of the Royal Observatory, and the combined ticket gives admission to the whole of it; weirdly, I’d never visited the non-free galleries of the Observatory before, so I had a good look around.  I liked that there was a camera obscura, though it was somewhat ruined by the constant parade of tourists who didn’t seem to understand how it worked and so kept failing to close the curtains properly, and the giant telescope was pretty cool, even though there were some guys repairing it whilst I was there. There were a few galleries with clocks and stuff, but it wasn’t ultimately that memorable or different from the stuff in the free galleries or the Clockmakers’ Museum I seem to keep mentioning in this post, so you’re really primarily paying for the steampunk stuff.

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(The picture above left is of the magic longitude tracking kiwi birds in diorama form, and is pretty adorable in person).  So I’m going to give Longitude Punk’d 4.5/5, even though I don’t think it’s worth £8.50 by itself (and therein lies the beauty of the combined ticket) because it really meshed with my personality and interests a lot better than The Quest for Longitude, but if you’ve got the ticket to both, you may as well see them both, right?  Just don’t make the mistake I did of visiting on a non-churro day, as even though I really enjoyed my steampunk adventure, I still regretted the lost opportunity to consume a fried-to-order pastry piped full of oozing dulce de leche.

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