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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.

Using the rich collections of the Whipple Museum and the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, the articles in this section explore this tangled history of astronomical science and colonial encounter, from the time of Cook through to the breakup of the British Empire. They consider the instruments, tools, and practices of those sent around the globe to observe, navigate, survey, and chart on behalf of imperial interests. And they examine the use, appropriation, and exchange of diverse materials on both sides of the imperial encounter.

This Explore section is based upon the exhibition Astronomy & Empire, which ran from Autumn 2017 to summer 2019 in the Museum’s Special Exhibitions Gallery.

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