Have you ever wondered how 18th and 19th century scientists explained the universe?
The NMM has recently published on Collections Online a new section called Popular Astronomy, which reveals through our collections how genteel ladies, gentlemen and even the general public were learning about the heavens. It was hoped that teaching such topics might encourage individuals to turn away from more frivolous occupations and toward a contemplation of the sublime nature of the universe and its Creator.
Urania’s Mirror or a View of the Heavens (AST0049)
Many new objects are online for the first time, including orreries, lecture slides and wall hangings. We hope you enjoy viewing these fascinating items.
Celestial table globe (GLB0095)
On the Upper Deck there is one object that never ceases to catch my eye. Look for item no. 50 – a celestial globe (GLB0095) displayed a little higher than the other objects in one of the long showcases.
Made of copper, the surface of the globe has stars punched through its surface. If you look closely, the sphere is engraved with figures from the zodiac. It consists of two hemispheres connected through the first points of Gemini and Sagittarius, while the equator and ecliptic are graduated. The cartography is Latin. The tropics are labelled but not drawn. This sphere was intended to sit on a table. A candle was placed inside, which projected light out from the centre of the globe, creating a miniature planetarium that charted the skies above. Although far humbler than our planetarium here in Greenwich, the effect would still be capable of taking your breath away. However, since becoming an object in a museum, the globe operates in the very opposite way. The stars no longer project outwards – instead the light shines inwards through the star perforations, drawing our attention into the object.
One of the many fascinating things about mapping the stars is the ways that human beings have attempted to make sense of what goes beyond the limits of our understanding. Celestial spheres encapsulate belief systems. In this example, predicated on the systems of the universe described by Ptolemy, mythical beasts create a network for stars. This sphere is not an original; it is an early copy made after Caspar Vopel (1511-1561) and is thought to have been made some time after 1546. Vopel was a German mathematics teacher, scholar and master craftsman, making his objects ideal for the amateur to copy. Although the names and styles of the depicted constellations are identical to the original, this is a rougher version with some misspellings and incorrect labelling.
I am endlessly intrigued by the way that this object puts the notion of accuracy second place to craft. These failings draw attention to the ways that, as our knowledge of the universe increases, notions of ‘truth’ can become superseded by new understandings of the world – a process that privileges matters of concern over matters of fact. This study of material cultures is the very way in which the collections of the National Maritime Museum challenge and ask questions of the assumptions that we use to understand our place in the world.