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We think we're masters of the universe with our tablets, HD, 3D, LCD, GPS... But put the gadgets down. Let LIZ NICHOLLS take you by the hand and whisk you back five centuries or so.
When adorable know-it-all Brian Cox was just a twinkle in his great-great-great(x13) grandfather’s eye, Gerard Mercator had the whole world in his hands.
If he hadn’t had his nose to the grindstone learning cartography and honing craftsmanship that would have tried the patience of several saints, navigators could never have sallied forth across the ocean in (sort of) straight lines. Who knows what the world would be like if he hadn’t put the hours in.
His work made a bigger impact than the internet has made on our own generation.
And what thanks does he get?
Do we make a big song and dance about his 500th birthday? Do we hell!
Thankfully, the Museum of the History of Science is lighting the candles.
The museum has just been awarded a £15,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant for its Renaissance Globe Project. The museum has an astounding collection of these globes, as well as additions from sister sites and the National Maritime Museum.
These map out more than just the world – they are coloured with each maker’s own personal historical, cultural palette and are mind-blowingly beautiful in their own right.
But rather than just sitting in cases, stroking themselves admiringly a la Samantha Brick, they want to get us all involved.
So at sessions starting this month, you can make your own globes, starting with a spherical blank canvas and applying your stories, art, research and more, learning the painstaking skills our forefathers mastered.
Another project – Objects of Invention – has won £6,200 from the Royal Academy of Engineers to inspire debate and ingenious solutions to the world’s problems, with more interactive sessions planned for next year.
The Museum of the History of Science, embedded in the cultural crown of Broad Street, is the world’s oldest purpose-built museum. It looks like a child’s drawing of a house – perfectly symmetrical and with a central staircase you can imagine 16th century visionaries clattering up and down.
It’s atmospheric and humbling, not the kind of place you can graze on a sandwich while being pumped full of digital wizardry.
But the museum truly engages. Because whether you’re a don visiting from overseas or your science career was cut short after setting your school lab partner on fire (it was an accident) you are welcome here.
Chris Parkin, lead education officer, explained the latest project’s aim was along the lines of Grayson Perry – quirky, humorous, individual, but also linked with ideas about exploration. Now that’s a fun way to learn.
Until visiting the Museum of Natural History, I’d never met an astrolabe.
These little beauties are the most celebrated of all mathematical instruments, created for use in time-telling and astronomy, astrology and surveying.
And I thought single mums could multitask.
The grandfather clock room is like a Gepetto’s workshop of ticking faces, full of character.
And there are more obscure items, like a man-sized spark machine producing a powerful charge of up to 150,000 volts, which I bet was more entertaining than Angry Byrds in its day.
But it’s the little things that are strangely affecting too. I marvelled at a post-mortem set and an amputation kit, bedecked in red velvet. I was affected by the cursive handwriting of whoever had owned it – just off for another day sawing off gangrenous legs, maybe.
Against one wall is the blackboard where Einstein scribbled his relativity theory on a visit to Oxford in 1931.
And I was impressed enough by the loops of chalk direct from this great brain, until a group of Chinese students started discussing the meaning of the equation and I was hooked on trying to decode it too.
So, whether it’s for a family-friendly drop-in to make a planetarium, a school visit or just a first foray into understanding time, the results might surprise you.
I wonder if our great-great-great(x23) grandchildren will be visiting here on their hoverboards (I can dream) to ponder our fixation with iPads? I find that a very comforting thought...
* The Copernicus family-friendly drop-in is at 2pm on Saturday, May 12. it is suitable for ages 7-13. No need to book, just drop in. The globe-makers workshop is held on Saturday, May 26, at 2pm and Saturday, June 23, at 2pm.
Email email@example.com or call 01865 277280 to book.
The Museum of the History of Science is in Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3AZ. Opening hours are Tuesday to Friday 12 to 5pm, Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday 2 to 5pm (closed Monday). Admission is free.