The Old Royal Observatory


This was by far my favourite museum in Greenwich until its recent “refurbishment.” Sitting proudly atop the highest hill for miles around, this building was originally built by Charles II to a design by Sir Christopher Wren. The old skinflint didn’t put enough money into the project, however, and stone from a local castle was pinched to construct the new observatory. Even worse, he paid its first inhabitant, poor old John Flamsteed, a miserly £100 a year – out of which he had to live, provide all his instruments and pay any assistants. No wonder he was infamously a Grumpy Old Sod.

I had been vastly looking forward to seeing the new, refurbished galleries, but it didn’t take me long to decide that it’s one of the worst re-hangs I’ve seen in a long time. Dark browns and buffs may be the latest fashionable colours – but they do nothing for what is, in many parts, a basement museum. Out went the light, airy and good conditions to view the exhibits, in came gloom and “trendy” dark spots.

I don’t know whether it’s true but it certainly SEEMS that the Observatory has gone down the same route as the Maritime Museum down the hill and decided that we all have such low attention spans that they dare not put too many exhibits on show. I don’t know – maybe they do have more things than before but it certainly doesn’t FEEL like it. It feels lightweight and patronising – and this from someone who is no scientific genius.

On the day I went there were hundreds of visitors milling around aimlessly and slightly puzzled, trying to work out which way to go. There were people left with nothing to look at whilst waiting to view a cabinet in the centre of the room which had inexplicably been given a blank back. There wasn’t even any information about the exhibit on the back, so people looked at a chocolate brown blank, waited, then gave up.

Other giant walls were also left blank but painted in such colours that they looked as though they were the backs of portacabins. Many of the “interactive” exhibits were simplified to the point of lowest common denominator even for children. Now I know that museums are supposed to be “inclusive” these days – but really – do they have to be dumbed-down to the point of excluding anyone with half a brain?

Such a shame. I used to love this museum.

The world-famous orange ball which drops at precisely 1.00pm each day was originally designed to be seen from the river as a visible sign of Greenwich Mean Time. I always wondered why it dropped at 1.00pm rather than noon – but when I asked I was surprised at the prosaic nature of the answer. Basically the astronomers who were expected to hitch it up and drop it by hand every day were always too busy observing the heavens at midday itself to remember – so they made it 1.00pm for purely practical reasons.


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