Reopening of the new Royal Observatory, Greenwich

The National Maritime Museum (NMM) has opened the final element of its £16-million redevelopment, of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich – the culmination of five years’ work – on Friday 25 May 2007.

The eye-catching central feature of the redesigned site is the futuristic, bronze-clad, 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetarium – now the only live public planetarium in London – which provides a spectacular introduction to the night sky and beyond.

The Peter Harrison Planetarium is equipped with one of the most advanced digital laser projectors in the world, and the only one of its kind in Europe, giving startling clarity to the journey through space. The shows are presented by real astronomers working at the Royal Observatory, who are on hand to answer questions about the heavens.

Alongside the planetarium are the Astronomy Galleries housed in the refurbished and modernised late-Victorian South Building completed in 1899 by William Crisp. Originally the ‘New Physical Observatory’ for astronomical research at Greenwich, it has now been entirely reconfigured internally for full public use. Within its fine original shell of terracotta-decorated brickwork are the three new interactive Weller Astronomy Galleries and the Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust Learning Centre. These together describe the tools of the modern astronomers, explain how and why they investigate space, and provide visitors and learners of all ages with a vivid and inspiring environment in which to explore the themes and ideas of modern astronomy in a setting which echoes past achievements in the field.

The 45-ton, patinated, bronze-clad cone which houses the planetarium is a dramatic new addition to the skyline. Its geometry embodies celestial co-ordinates familiar to navigators and astronomers down the ages. Tilted at 51.5 degrees (the latitude of Greenwich), it is also aligned with the neighbouring Prime Meridian (Longitude 0º). Its south elevation points upwards directly to the Pole Star and its north elevation to the astronomical zenith, while its truncated roof represents the celestial equator in the form of a reflective glass disc.

Carole Souter, Director of the Heritage Lottery Fund which awarded a grant of £6.78million towards the project said: ‘It’s wonderful to see the South Building at the Royal Observatory Greenwich now open for business. It's an incredibly important place that helps us to be a little closer to the stars, particularly as the building includes astronomy galleries for visitors as well as dedicated education spaces. The Heritage Lottery Fund is proud to have played a part in helping safeguard this centre of excellence, innovation and learning for future generations to enjoy.’

The opening of the planetarium, galleries and learning centre follows the completion of the first phase of the project. Among the highlights which opened in 2006 were four new award-winning Time galleries (with many more artefacts displayed than before); a workshop and research centre for the NMM’s extensive horological collections; and refurbishment and improved accessibility for Flamsteed House, the Observatory’s original building, commissioned by King Charles II and constructed to Sir Christopher Wren’s design in 1675-76.

Overall, the redevelopment has almost doubled the area of the Observatory open to visitors and the project provides a 21st-century experience for ever-expanding audiences from Britain and abroad: visitors have recently been increasing at 6% per year, with more than 960,000 in the past 12 months. In particular, the Peter Harrison Planetarium will enable far greater numbers of people to share in the wonders of the universe. The planetarium complements existing provision for studying the heavens including, for example, the popular ‘Evenings with the Stars’ using the Observatory’s 28-inch refracting telescope, still the largest telescope in the UK.

The Royal Observatory’s project astronomer, Professor Paul Murdin, comments: ‘The new galleries, learning centre and planetarium focus on important national objectives, to inspire and motivate young people to be interested in science for their own greater fulfilment and for the better future of the UK.’

The new developments at the Royal Observatory have been funded through the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Peter Harrison Foundation, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Lloyd's Register Educational Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, Science and Technology Facilities Council, Millennium Commission, Wolfson Foundation, the Weller Settlement Fund, the Sir John Fisher Foundation, the Basil Samuel Charitable Trust, Accurist and private and corporate donors and public donations through the Museum’s Universal Appeal which was launched in May 2004.

Roy Clare, Director of the Museum and Royal Observatory since 2000, comments: ‘As our audiences reach record levels here in Greenwich, it is with great pleasure that we are able to present the re-developed Royal Observatory, with its potential to engage and inspire even greater interest in our collections, themes and subjects.

The National Maritime Museum tells powerful stories of Britain’s engagement with the sea and shipping. These are tales of exploration, discovery, wealth-creation and migration at peace and in war, all linked by the science and practice of navigation. Early seafarers landed here; Henry VIII lived here; the Royal Navy has roots here; Charles II established the Observatory ‘for the finding of longitude’; ships have taken their time from here.

Now people from all over the world can share these and other excitements every single day. We are deeply grateful to all of our sponsors and supporters for helping to realise our vision. Peter Harrison, in particular, is the Museum’s most generous benefactor since our founder, Sir James Caird. It is especially fitting – and we are very proud – that the new public spaces were opened by Her Majesty the Queen, almost precisely 70 years since she accompanied her father, King George VI, when he opened the Museum itself on 27 April 1937.”

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Notes to editors:

  • The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, together with the 17th-century Queen’s House, is part of the National Maritime Museum, situated within the 200 acres of Greenwich Royal Park, all being part of the UNESCO-inscribed Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.
  • Designed by Christopher Wren, the Observatory is home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian and one of the most important historic scientific sites in the world. Since its founding in 1675, Greenwich has been at the centre of the measurement of time and space. Visitors can stand in both the eastern and western hemispheres simultaneously by placing their feet either side of the Prime Meridian line. Today the galleries describe the achievements of the early astronomers, explain the history of the search for longitude at sea and tell the story of precision timekeeping. These stories contain many cross-references to related displays in the National Maritime Museum itself, where the focus is on human endeavour at sea and in ships. A direct replica of John Harrison’s H4, the K1 timekeeper was used on Cook’s second and third voyages of discovery to test the effectiveness of Harrison’s inventions. K1 is one of several time-pieces currently on display in the Museum’s Oceans of Discovery gallery.
  • The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) enables communities to celebrate, look after and learn more about our diverse heritage. From our great museums and historic buildings to local parks and beauty spots or recording and celebrating traditions, customs and history, HLF grants open up our nation’s heritage for everyone to enjoy.  HLF has supported more than 22,500 projects, allocating over £3.6billion across the UK. Website: www.hlf.org.uk.  For more information on HLF, please contact Alison Scott on tel: 020 7591 6032 mobile: 07973 613820.
  • The Peter Harrison Foundation was founded by Peter Robert Harrison in 1999. His early business career included appointments with the Ford Motor Company, Firth Cleveland and Crest Nicholson Group PLC. He acquired Chernikeeff in 1978 and, as Chairman and Chief Executive, he developed it into the largest privately held computer networking and internet integration company in the UK. The donation to the Royal Observatory Greenwich Time and Space project was made possible through the Harrison Foundation Opportunities through Education programme.
  • The National Maritime Museum is one of the 14 national museums and galleries sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.  The Department provides grant-in-aid to the Museum and allocated £1.3 million in 2004-06 towards the refurbishment of the South Building at the Royal Observatory Greenwich as part of the Time and Space Project.
  • Lloyd’s Register is the preferred global provider of risk management solutions to enhance clients' quality, safety, environmental and business performance. Through its constitution, Lloyd’s Register advances public education within engineering and technological disciplines, which is accomplished through the Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust. In recognition of its support the Royal Observatory’s new education centre will be known as the Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust Learning Centre.
  • The funding programme for the Royal Observatory was supported by a Universal Appeal Board chaired by Peter Snow. Its members were: Prof (S) Jocelyn Bell Burnell CBE FRS FRSE; Prof John Brown (Astronomer Royal for Scotland); Dr M C Faulkes; Sir David Hardy; Prof Lisa Jardine CBE; George Magan; Sir Patrick Moore CBE FRS, Prof Colin Pillinger CBE FRS; Libby Purves OBE; Sir Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal); Patricia Rothman; Dava Sobel; Lord Tanlaw FRAS FBHI; Prof Kathryn Whaler FRSE.

Issued May 2007 by the National Maritime Museum Press Office.

For further information or images, please contact:
Sheryl Twigg, Nigel Rubenstein or Lisa Pender
National Maritime Museum Press Office
Tel: 020 8312 6790/6732/6545
Email:  press@rmg.co.uk