Astronomy and Empire

Astronomy & Empire is the first exhibition in the Whipple Museum's newly refurbished Special Exhibition Gallery. It explores the tangled history of science and the British Empire through the instruments, tools, and practices of those sent around the globe to observe, survey, navigate, and chart on behalf of Imperial interests.

Transit Instrument
Portable transit instrument, 'Russian' type, by T. Cooke & Sons, 1869. Used in the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.T801).
Transit Instrument in box
Portable transit instrument in shipping crate, by Troughton & Simms, c. 1900. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.2145).

The British Empire was built on scientific labour. Precision instruments made in London, charts published by the Royal Observatory, chronometers set to Greenwich time: all of these material tools and many others were essential for the navigation of Britain's ships to far flung corners of the globe. On foreign soil, astronomers, surveyors, and geographers worked side by side with administrators and the military during British efforts to discover, conquer, settle, and manage new colonies. And once established, the imperial world also served as a crucial field site for numerous astronomical enterprises, from the periodic observation of eclipses to the establishment of major new observatories.

This exhibition uses the rich collections of the Whipple Museum and the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy to exhibit and critique these sciences of empire. It displays the instruments at the heart of colonial rule, exploring how these material tools were deployed, used, traded, and received in often remote locations, as part of strenuous efforts to secure and further British dominion. And it attempts to recover the human stories that underpin these enterprises, on both sides of the Imperial encounter.

Thematic displays evoke the often rough and always challenging work of precision science conducted in the field and aboard ship. They ask how the instruments crucial for these practices were transported, calibrated, used, and exchanged. And they draw attention to the human actors - some very visible in the historical record, many others nearly invisible - who made these enterprises work. Using numerous direct quotes from those tangled up with astronomy and empire, the exhibition explores the many different types of labour and power that made observations count between the 18th century and the end of Empire.

» Find out about India Unboxed []. To mark the UK-India Year of Culture 2017, the University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden is celebrating a shared season on the theme of India - a programme of exhibitions, events, digital encounters, discussions, installations and more within the museums and the city of Cambridge.

» Watch a short piece [], as part of India Unboxed, about our very own Portable Transit Instrument, its movement, and role in the networks of Empire.

» Watch a special curators tour via the University of Cambridge Museum's Facebook site [].

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