Background on our Cosmos & Culture exhibition

Ali Boyle is the Curator of Astronomy at the Science Museum. She oversaw Cosmos & Culture, one of our newest exhibitions so I asked her a few questions about putting the exhibition together and the Cosmic Collections website competition that we’re just about to launch…

What’s the Cosmos & Culture exhibition about, and how did you select and organise the objects?

Cosmos & Culture looks at how people all around the world have interacted with the skies throughout history. It uses the Science Museum’s unique collections, and the stories of the people behind the objects, which makes it a very particular portrayal of astronomy that you won’t find elsewhere.

Armilliary Globe

Armillary Globe

The objects are organised around three major themes: the tools we’ve made to explore the cosmos, the ideas we have come up with to make sense of what we’ve seen, and how we’ve used astronomy in our daily lives. We tried several different ways of organising the exhibition content and settled on this as the best way to cover such a large subject area and historical span. But we could have organised things completely differently, and the web competition is a great way to explore what other themes might make for good storytelling.

Selecting objects for exhibitions is always a challenge, as we have far more objects in our collection than we could ever display in a gallery. Some objects are obvious choices – for example, we really wanted to display Thomas Harriot’s drawings to mark the 400th anniversary of his first lunar observations with a telescope.

Thomas Harriot’s Moon map

Thomas Harriot’s Moon map. Lord Egremont / West Sussex Record Office

Some we choose because we know lots about them, which helps to tell stories. Some are beautiful and included for dramatic visual appeal on gallery, and there are always a few that the curators just have a personal affection for!

So which are your favourite objects?

There are over 100 objects in the exhibition and my favourite changes day-to-day depending what mood I’m in! But some that I particularly like are:

  • A letter from King George III awarding a salary to William and Caroline Herschel, making Caroline the first professional female astronomer – aside from showing the Herschels’ importance in the history of astronomy, it tells a very personal story of a brother and sister who overcame struggles to become the leading astronomers of their day.
  • Parts of the radio telescope array used by Jocelyn Bell and Antony Hewish in the 1967 discovery of pulsars – this is one of the most famous serendipitous discoveries in astronomy. The parts on display are essentially just some cedar posts and don’t look as glamorous as some of the beautiful brass and glass objects in the same showcase, but it illustrates that often it’s the very ordinary looking objects that had the biggest impact.
  • Phil Shepherdson’s telescope, which he made from baked bean tins, car parts and coat hangers, with a mirror painstakingly polished by hand. It’s a fantastic personal story and the bright red telescope is a real focal point of the exhibition.

Do you think there are stories behind the objects that you didn’t have space to explore in the exhibition?

There are definitely other stories to be told. Even though the Cosmos & Culture exhibition uses a new multimedia interface to allow us to tell more about each object than you would find in a normal printed label, there are many more things we could say. For the exhibition we chose stories that fit our overall themes, but there are other stories too. We hope that the web competition might help to reveal new stories about the objects, some that we at the Museum might not be aware of.

To what extent are amateurs still influential in astronomy?

These days astronomy is one of the few areas where amateurs can still make a significant contribution to scientific research. Sometimes amateurs make dramatic discoveries, like new comets or the July 2009 dark spot on Jupiter. More often, they contribute to projects led by professional astronomers – having a network of amateurs around the world allows astronomers to build up detailed observations of celestial bodies. And if you can’t go observing yourself, you can still get involved by helping to sort data online. Galaxy Zoo, which our judge Chris Lintott is involved in, is one of the best examples of ‘citizen science’.

If you have more questions for Ali please post them as comments below. For all the geeky details about the website competition, there’s an interview with Mia Ridge, our Senior Web Developer on the way…

One thought on “Background on our Cosmos & Culture exhibition

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