By Yinka Shonibare
Shonibare’s scale model of Nelson’s flagship, Victory, is the world’s largest ship in a bottle. The model is rigged with sails, naval ensigns and signal flags shown as they were on the day of the Battle of Trafalgar. The only significant departure from historical reality is the design of the 37 sails, which derives from the brightly coloured patterns of Dutch-was fabric.*
*Info from a sign board next to the ’ship in a bottle’.
The Altazimuth Pavilion is topped with an unusual weather vane.
It is modelled on Halley’s Comet, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. It was erected in June 1901, a few years after the building was completed but in time for the comet’s return in 1909. There is a clear link with the Observatory’s history since Halley was the second Astronomer Royal, although his famous prediction was made fifteen years before he took up the post. It is not clear why the illustration from the Bayeux Tapestry was used as inspiration, although its shape is ideal for catching the wind and echoes that of the weathervanes of the Royal Naval College down the hill.
This modern structure placed alongside the old observatory buildings draws the eye. It is only on closure inspection that all is revealed…
The truncated bronze cone covering the planetarium dome. Its form and orientation reflect the local meridian and latitude.
Observe the marvels as they happen around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the beauty moving through and be silent.
Jalil al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), Persia
One of the Royal Observatory buildings is decorated with terracotta tiles and sculptures. Astronomia, a figure representing Astronomy particularly caught my eye.
The terracotta tiles and decorative sculpture are the work of Doulton & Co, of Lambeth. An art nouveau-inspired figure of Astronomia on the northwest side at the bottom of the old staircase is signed `WJ Neatby 1895′. The names of 24 important figures in English, and more particularly, Greenwich astronomy are displayed above the first floor windows. The seven previous Astronomers Royal – Flamsteed, Halley, Bradley, Bliss, Maskelyne, Pond and Airy take pole position with Newton at the cardinal and ordinal points. A cast of instrument makers, clockmakers and others of influential astronomers take up the rest – Wren, Horrox, Adams, Herschel, Sheepshanks, Baily, Simms, Troughton, Ramsden, Bird, Sharp, Graham, Dollond, Earnshaw, Arnold and Harrison.
Each of the windows on the ground floor (except those on the ends of the wings), has a Tudor Rose above them. These are of three slightly different designs, corresponding to the three phases in which the wings were built. At the upper levels, the ends of each wing are highly ornate. A bust of Flamsteed sculpted by J Raymond Smith is mounted above the front door on the north wing. The end of the south wing has a tribute to Queen Victoria. The end of the east wing commemorates the Royal Society and the west wing the Royal Astronomical society.
The Royal Observatory in Greenwich is the home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and the Prime Meridian of the world.
What is a meridian?
A meridian is a north-south line selected as the zero reference line for astronomical observations. By comparing thousands of observations taken from the same meridian it is possible to build up an accurate map of the sky.
The line in Greenwich represents the Prime Meridian of the World – Longitude 0º. Every place on Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line. The line itself divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth – just as the Equator divides the northern and southern hemispheres.
Where is the meridian?
In 1884 the Prime Meridian was defined by the position of the large ‘Transit Circle’ telescope in the Observatory’s Meridian Observatory. The transit circle was built by Sir George Biddell Airy, the 7th Astronomer Royal, in 1850. The cross-hairs in the eyepiece of the Transit Circle precisely defined Longitude 0° for the world. As the earth’s crust is moving very slightly all the time the exact position of the Prime Meridian is now moving very slightly too, but the original reference for the prime meridian of the world remains the Airy Transit Circle in the Royal Observatory, even if the exact location of the line may move to either side of Airy’s meridian.