Heaven’s Above! An Interactive Exhibition

Well, it has been about three weeks since the Being Human, National Festival of Humanities activities took place in Durham. Philipp Nothaft’s magnificent lecture on the dating of Easter (just before Advent, appropriately) on the 18th November, which attracted an audience of over 80 and is available in video form, began events. The lecture took place in the stupendous setting of the Chapter House in Durham Cathedral, and also formed the first in a series of public talks on the Cultural History of the Medieval Universe – a new initiative between the Ordered Universe project and the Michael Ramsey Centre for Anglican Studies. Philipp gave a tour de force of calendrical calculation in the Christian tradition, showing how extensive, complex and passionate attempts to reform the calendar in light of astronomical observations were. Moving from the early Church to the Reformation, he emphasised the importance of what can seem an arcane subject to the everyday lives of medieval people.

For the following day we turned to the interactive exhibition on all things scientific, astronomical, sight and vision related from the Middle Ages to the modern day. Taking place in the Pemberton Lecture rooms the exhibition involved some 14 stands and attracted over 250 visitors.

  1. Sculpting with Light – Alexandra Carr
  2. National Glass Centre Artists Through a Glass Darkly– Cate Watkinson with Angela Thwaites, Claire Todd and Ruth Brenner
  3. Durham Cathedral Hunter 100: Time, Space and Body – Ana Dias, Jon Turnock, Sarah Gilbert
  4. Modern Colour Vision Theory – Hannah Smithson
  5. Robert Grosseteste’s Optical Experiments – Tom McLeish
  6. John Dalton: Atoms and Colour Vision – Rachel Dunn
  7. Renaissance Astronomy – Dario Tessicini
  8. Astrolabes – Sebastian Falk
  9. Robert Grosseteste: Life and Times – Giles Gasper (and Ordered Universe team)
  10. The Blow-Up Planetarium – Department of Physics
  11. The Galaxy Creator – Institute of Computational Cosmology (ICC)
  12. Occulus Rift through the Dark Matter – ICC
  13. The World Machine and Spiritus – Ross Ashton
  14. Science at Ushaw College – Claire Marsland

Two rooms of interactive delights then, and brought alive by Time Bandits re-enactment group, who brought more medieval life and colour to the event – including with Professors of Physics…

This was the first time we’d brought the outreach activities of Ordered Universe members, partners and friends together and it made for a stimulating and exhilarating series of displays. From the darkness of light in the planetarium, to medieval astronomy, star-craft and learning, and its continuities and discontinuities in the Early Modern period, to Grosseteste’s law of refraction, John Dalton’s amazing investigations into atoms and colour blindness, the extraordinary collections at Ushaw College for the History of Science, and cutting edge modern research into retinal imaging, galaxy modelling, the exhibition offered a wide variety of perspectives on how humans have investigated and interpreted the heavens above.

Tremendous thanks to those who organised and helped – it really went very smoothly, and to the sponsoring organisations – the Being Human Festival and partners, the Institutes of Advanced Study and Medieval and Early Modern Studies in Durham, the Centre for Catholic Studies and the National Glass Centre – University of Sunderland, the Projection Studio and Alexandra Carr. The feedback was excellent – and it was great to have inspired people, and to see the combination of medieval and modern scientific research, creative artists and technological expertise come together for the public. And, just so that you can repeat it at home, here is Tom McLeish on Grosseteste’s refraction experiments:

Thanks to all who came along – this was a real treat to put on, and great fun for everyone – exactly what Being Human is all about.

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