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The Renaissance in Astronomy

Cassiope Kestrel Sydoriak

ShameThe Renaissance in Astronomy
11 May — 9 September 2012
The Museum of the History of Science
Broad Street
Curator: Dr Jim Bennett


Tucked in a winding, dimly-lit corridor in the basement of the Museum of the History of Science, a first edition of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium defies history. It sits pristinely in a display cabinet, awaiting perennial rediscovery in the light of hindsight. This book, and the theories that spiraled out from its constellation of influence, changed the nature of thinking about the cosmos and our place within it. The Renaissance in Astronomy, a special exhibition collaboratively organized by the Museum of the History of Science and the Royal Astronomical Society, explores this period of intellectual change.

From the first step into this temporary exhibition, a hush falls on the objects. They are some of the most scientifically influential texts and instruments of their time, underpinning medieval and early modern theories of astronomy. From the first printed edition of Ptolemy’s Almagest (1515) to with Tycho Brahe’s Astronomiae instauratae mechanica (1602), historic books ruffle their dusty feathers in preparation for a new generation of contemporary astronomers and curious museum visitors.

Science is both a textual and a visual discipline, and imagining the function of the cosmos in the sixteenth century became easier thanks to celestial globes and armillary spheres. Of special note is Johann Schöner’s pair of globes (1534): these were among the first to pair celestial and terrestrial astronomy on the same scale, suggesting connections between heavenly and earthly events that altered conceptualizations of man’s place in the cosmos. A pair of globes made by Gerard Mercator in 1541 are larger and more finely decorated, transcribed with ‘loxodromes’ and ‘rhumb lines’ that trace the path of a compass and imply a connection with navigation.

It is unsurprising that some familiar astronomers and cartographers are absent: Kepler and Galileo contributed significant treatises in the wake of sixteenth-century advancements, but the limited size of the temporary exhibition space at the Museum of the History of Science combined with the temporal scope of the exhibition prevented their inclusion. Surprising, however, is the absence of Abraham Ortelius – author of the first modern world atlas in 1570 – and Jodocus Hondius, who re-published Mercator’s maps in the early 1600s, propelling their creator to eternal recognition. In an exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the birth of Gerard Mercator, these deficiencies are notable.

The Renaissance in Astronomy has some marked shortcomings: it feels stuffy and silent; tomb-like stone walls preserve beautiful objects which were originally meant to be touched, used, and manipulated, revealing the mysteries of the cosmos. Finding temporary exhibition space in a building limited by size is challenging, but exhibiting celestial globes and sundials underground starkly contradicts their original usage, and limited signage may hinder less intrepid visitors from discovering the objects on display.

A single computer screen at the conclusion of the exhibition animates an astrolabe with explanatory text, but additional opportunities for learning about the cosmos are limited to factual wall text and off-hour tours and lectures. Although the theory and scholarship behind the objects is solidly researched, the exhibit relies almost entirely on the historical resonance of the books and globes to profess their significance. Refreshingly, it appeals to a mature and educated audience, but some visitors may be dissuaded from further exploration by a lack of approachable content and of explicit signaling of the objects’ wider contextual significance.

In spite of the exhibition’s limitations, it successfully presents the bedrock of early modern astronomical thinking. The modern age has replaced ocean navigation with satellite GPS, but forgetting founders such as Mercator is like forgetting our reflection in a mirror. “Science-fiction yesterday, fact today – obsolete tomorrow,” predicted Otto Binder in the 1960s, meditating on the loss of wonder that accompanies scientific acceptance. By presenting these astronomical objects as still-living artefacts, relevant for both aesthetic contemplation and contemporary scientific thought, the threat of obsolescence is momentarily suspended.

Cassiope Kestrel Sydoriak is reading for an MSt in History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford.