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telescope inside a canvas tent

Astronomy and Empire was the first exhibition in the Whipple Museum's refurbished Special Exhibition Gallery

Running until Summer 2019, the exhibition explored 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.

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.

19th century brass astrologers' globe from India, with inscriptions in Arabic, Persian and Urdu
19th Century brass astrologers' globe from North-Central India, with Arabic, Persian and Urdu inscriptions (Wh.5180).

This exhibition used the rich collections of the Whipple Museum and the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy to exhibit and critique these sciences of empire. It displayed 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 attempted to recover the human stories that underpin these enterprises, on both sides of the Imperial encounter.

Thematic displays evoked the often rough and always challenging work of precision science conducted in the field and aboard ship. They asked how the instruments crucial for these practices were transported, calibrated, used, and exchanged. And they drew 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 explored the many different types of labour and power that made observations count between the 18th century and the end of Empire.

Further information

Opening Times

Please note:

From 21st October, the Museum will be open on Wednesdays and Friday afternoons, for pre-booked visits only.

Tickets are free but must be booked through the University of Cambridge Museums' ticketing system.

Closed bank holidays

Free Entry