The Map of the Moon display in the Compass Lounge is being extended until December which is great news and gives me the chance to write about the experience of putting the display together and meeting Wilkins’ daughter and granddaughter.
Not long after starting at the Museum in January I was charged with (or rather nominated myself) rehanging the display in the Compass Lounge to coincide with the Visions of the Universe exhibition. It was a great introduction to the Museum and its many departments and what it takes to put on an exhibition, no matter how small. From little dramas like persuading Conservation to undo all their hard work and remove the sections of the map from their protective sleeves for photography, to working with the wonderful Design studio, Interpretation and arranging object movement and installation; it’s been a great learning curve.
When searching Collections online I discovered some reference shots of an incredibly detailed hand drawn map of the moon, and so a love affair of sorts began. The map, meticulously drawn by Hugh Percy Wilkins took about 14 years to complete and great dedication from an engineer and amateur astronomer.
Back in June I had the great pleasure of meeting Eileen Coombes and her daughter Carolyn; the daughter and granddaughter of Wilkins when they came to visit the display.
Some insights into the family life of such a committed astronomer really helped to build a picture of the man behind the map. The family reached quite a celebrity status with journalists knocking on the door at all hours and misinterpreting the dynamic between Wilkins and his wife. Journalists pressed Wilkins’ wife to imply that due to his obsession he ‘never took her to the pictures or for a nice meal’, she replied truthfully that yes that was the case.
I asked Eileen if her mother ever got fed up with his commitment to the night sky but Eileen explained that she was quietly supportive and was in fact “the perfect foil for someone’s vision which was channeled so acutely”.
Eileen was very involved in the making of the map; she would often spend cold, clear nights in the garden with her father and if she mentioned the chill in the air was told ‘Herschel’s daughter never complained’ (although it appears he didn’t have a daughter).
Wilkins was good friends with Sir Patrick Moore, Eileen showed me a photograph taken at Crayford Manor House at the evening class Wilkins held there. The image shows Sir Patrick Moore turning his head obnoxiously to one side to disrupt the formal group photo. They continue to use a 300inch version of his map at the Crayford Observatory today.
Carolyn was obviously overwhelmed by her Grandfather’s skill and commitment; he certainly was an artist as well as an engineer and astronomer. It’s wonderful that this opportunity arose to put his work on display for the public and gave his granddaughter the opportunity to get to know the Grandfather she never met.