Magazine article History Today

The Story of Time

Magazine article History Today

The Story of Time

Article excerpt

THE ROYAL OBSERVATORY has long been devoted to the telling of the history of time and timekeepers on the historic Greenwich site. The Home of Time is now launching its most ambitious project to date, an all-encompassing exhibition on time.

Containing objects on loan from 150 museums around the world, `The Story of Time' will open at a moment when, more than ever before, peoples' imagination is focused on the meaning of time. Paintings by Canaletto, Turner, Titian, Poussin, Rauschenberg and Dali rub shoulders with Chinese ancestor-portraits, the earliest known dated watch, tenth-century manuscripts and a twentieth-century photograph taken by the Hubble telescope. And veritable icons of time on show include the metronome used by Ludwig van Beethoven or Albert Einstein's handwritten notes on the Theory of Relativity.

The curator and the creative inspiration behind the show and its accompanying catalogue is Dr Kristen Lippincott, Director of the Royal Observatory. Piecing together an exhibition which is a long way from the traditional National Maritime Museum show has been an inspirational task: `An awful lot of things have surprised me. I came to this exhibition with a fairly good grounding in scientific instruments, calendar calculation and western iconography. But I was very surprised about a lot of the non-Western areas. For example, Aboriginal Dream Time, Maori conceptions of time, Chinese and Japanese conceptions of time opened up vistas for me. But I was often surprised, even when I thought that I knew an image. For example, there's a Florentine calendar that I'd worked on, but it was only when I sat down with it for a while that I worked out what that calendar was telling me. It allows you to calculate the date of Easter and the beginning of Lent for every year from 1461 onwards. I sat there calculating dates and it was right every time'.

The exhibition reflects the myriad ways in which people and cultures have expressed their understanding of time, questioning the perceptions held by many visitors to the show. Kristen has her own thoughts on what the exhibition tells us about ourselves: `Three things have struck me. Firstly, human beings have an urge to measure and name things. It's the way that we deal with uncertainty. We try to contain and subdivide things'.

`Another thing is how much people believe that the pattern of the stars and the seasons are "messages from God" and if they understand how the stars move, they're understanding their god'.

`Thirdly, human beings cannot come to terms with their own death. Once you've accepted that you're ageing, which is very hard, and come to terms with the fact that your body might die, the search to extend existence beyond death is always there'.

Kristen drew upon a celebrated authority as her guide to presenting a sometimes bewilderingly vast topic: `I thought about E.H. Gombrich's The Story of Art and how he had once said to me that, when writing, he imagined that he was writing for a mythical auntie, who didn't care about art. He saw his job as explaining what made him so excited about it. So I took that idea as a starting point: what inspires me about time'?

It's perhaps not surprising then that Gombrich is one of a notable list of essayists who have contributed to the accompanying catalogue. Gombrich tackles `The History of Anniversaries' in a book, which includes new works by Howard Morphy, professor of archaeology and anthropology, Sir Martin Rees the Astronomer Royal, and Umberto Eco, author, historian and philosopher. …

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