In today’s society where many devices have GPS chips, it’s a bit of a leap to think back to days when people had to manually calculate longitude and latitude to determine their exact position at sea. Longitude will be the topic of the next major exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, but in the meantime the Royal Observatory has been tasked with bringing a contemporary twist to the theme.
Eight steampunk artists have been asked to take inspiration from the submissions that were made to the board of Longitude — think of it as an 18th century precursor to Dragon’s Den — who judged competition entries into the thorny (and vital) problem of calculating a ship’s distance east or west while at sea. The board presided over some rather outrageous suggestions.
The exhibition starts off slowly inside the classical rooms of Flamsteed house. The building is populated with hats and dresses adorned with working orreries that replicate the orbits of the planets around the sun, and a dress decorated with the constellations in the night sky.
It’s when the artistic licence is taken to extremes that we had the most fun with this exhibition, including using elephants suspended from balloons as monitoring stations — clearly their rumoured ability to never forget would make for excellent observation skills.
Our favourite tale revolves around a lost sailor who was cared for by kiwi birds and therefore gained some of their wisdom and magical powers — this even stretches to a diorama of a Kiwi sanctum aboard a ship. They were kept on board because they were said to know their exact position on the seas at any given time — it was expected they would simply dip their bills in ink and write down the co-ordinates!
The more bizarre displays here are the most engaging but unfortunately they are outweighed by those that are more mundane. If more freedom to think radically had been exercised here we feel this could have made for a more enjoyable exhibition.
Longitude Punk’d is on at the Royal Observatory Greenwich until 4 January 2015. Tickets for the observatory are £7 for adults, concessions available, and this includes access to the exhibition. Also still on at the nearby National Maritime Museum is the excellent Turner and the Sea which closes in a week’s time