Peter Harrison Planetarium

The Old Royal Observatory, Greenwich Park

I’m sure that most people remember the lovely, cranky old planetarium at the Old Royal Observatory which closed a few years ago to make way for this new development. About 30 people per sitting got to climb up a bunch of fiddly old backstairs, right up to the very top of what is apparently “South Building” (which always felt slightly ‘naughty’ – being allowed somewhere which was obviously not really for the likes of us) and sit round the edge of the old dome on 1950s plastic benches (red, if memory serves) and gaze up at a cardboard cut-out silhouette of the London skyline while some wonderfully crusty old boffin in a knitted tie and baggy trousers gave us a commentary of our journey through the sky at night. It was always a bit of a lottery as to how interesting your particular crusty old boffin would be, but usually they were delightful and as fascinated as I was. There is something rather special about being talked to by a real astronomer…

I used to love that old place, with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies but if I stopped being romantic for just one second, it was hardly cutting-edge and fell way short of being everyone’s idea of a good day out…

They closed the place three years ago, promising us a brand new one. If I’m honest, I didn’t believe them. I thought it would be like when the BFI closed MOMI “for refurbishment” to avoid an outcry from furious film fans, then quietly never re-opened (they lost my membership over that – not, I guess, that they care. )

The Observatory needed stupid amounts of cash – they already had some – enough to rebuild the South Building into new galleries, but the extra required to include a planetarium seemed nigh-on impossible. I gave my own paltry sum, but it was a drop in the ocean. However it would seem that the National Maritime Museum has a lot of friends, all of who put in their own sums, presumably some of which amounted to rather more than paltry – for now it has re-opened, in sumptuous splendour and not a penny seems to have been pinched anywhere.

I have already talked about the Time Galleries in the really old bit, so I won’t go into them here (you’ll find them somewhere in my rambling archives…) The new bit really amounts to a load of stuff that hasn’t been properly open to the public ever before, so it’s all fabulous brand-spanking new.

The little observatory that they use for looking at the movements of the sun has had a spruce-up. You still can’t go in there, but it is such a pretty little building that it’s a joy to look at anyway. I would guess it’s the same age as the old South Building, which has also had a clean up so that all its Victorian finery (which some said was over-fancy, I say is glorious) is back to red-brick newness. I’ll come to that in a sec.

What is between the two is a bit of a surprise, and takes a tiny bit of acclimatisation, but once you are used to it, it’s just as enjoyable as the other buildings. It’s a sort of truncated cone made in bronze which houses the new planetarium’s dome. I had originally assumed they didn’t want yet another dome in Greenwich after the dubious success of its most recent ancestor, but I am told it’s that shape to avoid the bad acoustics that you get in other domes. It looks like a giant metal iceberg, floating in the concrete sea between the two Victorian buildings, and that’s not a bad analogy as it turns out.

But back to the South Building. Apparently, because it was built for observation, it had a massive brick plug down the middle of it to support the weight of the telescope in the roof. This made it an absolute rubbish building for everything else, and it was just a warren of tiny little offices. Once they’d calculated that if they took the middle bit out the rest of the building wouldn’t fall down, they were able to completely redesign the interior, so there’s nothing of the original left (save the dome right at the top which has been made into a conference room and which the public can’t see, chiz.)

The guard told me that in order to put the gigantic spiral staircase down the middle, they had to remove part of the wall, then put it back again. I’m not entirely sure I believe that, but stranger things have been known. It’s a stunning staircase, linking all the floors and reflecting the original brick plug.

On the middle, entry level there are three galleries – the usual interactive, heavily curriculum-oriented exhibits we are used to in all our major museums nowadays. It’s fun, and, like the rest of the Maritime Museum, great for people with a passing rather than deep interest in the subject. I can see it appealing to school parties, which is presumably their prime target. I enjoyed it, because, frankly, it’s pretty much on my own level of knowledge, but I was with people who are much more interested and I think they could have taken a little more depth.

Above that are classrooms. Some have computers (I suspect they will be using those for that fantastic GCSE Astronomy course they run) others are more for schools.

Downstairs the fun really begins. The basement covers virtually the whole of the concrete patio bit above and is much bigger than you’d think. The bulk of it is, naturally, the planetarium.

It is a massive dome, as you might expect, but what I didn’t expect is that instead of like every planetarium I have ever set foot in before, these seats are all in rows facing one direction – like a theatre. This felt strange and unsettling and that feeling didn’t leave me all the time I was there. We were advised to fill up from the back. I only sat four rows from the back, but I already had difficulty seeing absolutely everything that was going on behind me and I really pity the poor sods who, having paid their six quid, had to sit in the front row. I can’t imagine they got to see very much at all. I am baffled by the decision to place the seats in this configuration – at best you get a neck-ache, at worst you don’t get to see anything at all. Next time I have £ 6 I will go in and deliberately sit at the front to see just how good or bad a view I get.

The show is amazing, though. I dread to think how much that projector cost, but the clarity of the images is stunning. The script is, again, basic and aimed at children and the mildly interested (yeah, ok – me…) but the beauty of it is that you come away wanting to know more. I am told that there will be other shows of various complexity rolled out as the planetarium matures, which will be shown in repertory.

Most of it is utterly fascinating, though I could have done with a few fewer comparisons. I don’t think there were any of the really terrible double-decker-bus/ football pitches /n-times-the-size-of-Wales cliches, but there were a lot of them and some of them made me cringe a little – one that went something along the lines of “more stars in the sky than heartbeats in the whole of human existence” for example…

I would argue that it’s not for real tinies or very sensitive children – there are a few things that would have kept me awake at night as a child. Let me explain. I remember a sleepless six months or so as a small child, after having seen a programme about how rabies was just about to invade Britain. I don’t think it was a ‘bad’ programmes – a sort of Panorama-type thing – but I was one of those kids prone to a fertile imagination and unchecked exaggeration, with no sense of proportion. Every day for months I was utterly paralysed with fear before the 6.00 o’clock news, waiting to hear the headline in case I was going to be turned into some raving, frothing lunatic (no gags, ok?) I never told my parents because I thought they would laugh but the thought distressed me a lot. In a very small part of this show, ideas such that the sun could explode at any time, or a meteorite could crash into Earth causing the end of the world (I paraphrase) are usually – but not always – given the “but this is extremely unlikely in our time” caveat. Maybe I’m being oversensitive myself here but just to warn you guys, you might want to talk to your kids afterwards to make sure they’re not eaten up with silent trauma.

The show I saw was not with a live commentary. I understand that there are live, real astronomers doing the shows and that the recorded show is just a back-up for when they’re not available. That will make it much better.

So. A big thumbs-up for this new, exciting attraction here on our doorstep, with a couple of minor grumbles – those seats will give you a crick in the neck – arrive early and get in the back row – and some of the exhibits are a bit entry-level knowledge – but that’s what we have to expect these days from a government policy that calls “inclusivity” pandering to the lowest common denominator. I think that given that they just wouldn’t have been allowed to do a really in-depth presentation, the NMM has provided exhibits which are fun and exciting, and which invite further private study…

Go see.

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