Guest Post: Somewhere to Go - The William Herschel Museum (Bath)

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By Mike Young, via Wikimedia Commons
Herschel used a 'scope a lot like this one to
discover...

There are - as far as I'm concerned - two kinds of museum. There's the "oo look! Touch and play" kind of museum; and there's the "crazy display of mad wee things" kind.

The William Herschel Museum in New King Street, Bath ( http://www.bath-preservation-trust.org.uk/index.php?id=44 , £5 to get in [How much to get out? - TK]) is firmly in the mad wee things category. Dedicated to the life and work of 18th century astronomer William Herschel (whose discovery of Uranus was a gigantic coup for his telescope-building business), the museum gives a glimpse into the world of Georgian science.

The museum spans three of the five floors of the modest townhouse where Herschel and his sister, Caroline, did their early work. You start in the basement, where Patrick Moore narrates a short video putting Herschel into context, before you wander through the remaining rooms, laid out roughly as they would have been in Herschel's time. The kitchen, for instance, is right next to Herschel's workshop, where the cracked tiles show the injuries of a mirror-making accident; these are next to a gallery full of rather neat astronomical artwork by Chris Williams overlooking the garden where Uranus was discovered. Upstairs, you've got the rooms where the Herschels lived and worked, with many of their tools, instruments, replica furniture and clothes - as well as the odd bit of paraphernalia vaguely related to Herschel's musical and scientific careers.

By NASA/JPL/Voyager, from Wikimedia Commons
... 90 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 kg of stuff that no-one
had noticed before.
The walls are covered with satirical prints of the day - sadly, without much context or explanation, which is my major disappointment with the museum. The artefacts - from Herschel's tools to newspaper cuttings to astrolabes to military serpents - are amazing, but almost completely devoid of context.

The late 18th century was - largely - a rotten period for British science: Newton had been and gone, and Babbage was just around the corner; Harrison, Watt, Jenner and Dunlop are the only memorable British names that leap out at me from a list of inventions and discoveries of the time. Meanwhile, on the continent, Euler, the Bernoullis, Lagrange and Laplace were busy inventing modern maths, Franklin was sorting out that pesky electricity nonsense in the colonies... while, as far as I can see, Britain cried about losing the USA and fretted about Napoleon*.

Even the Herschels were originally Hanoverian and only ended up in Bath because of the burgeoning music scene. There's no sense of how important discovering Uranus was (there are only nine planets in the solar system - counting Pluto, of course [Which means there are only eight planets in the solar system... TK] - we're sitting on one of them and we've known about at least five of the others since antiquity), and very little about the actual astronomy he did.

If you're looking for a hands-on museum of astronomy, you won't find it at the Herschel. However, on a 'look and gawp at the mad wee things' level, it's a wonderful glimpse into the life of a genius who isn't as well-known as Newton and Babbage - but probably ought to be.





* I'm good at this history lark!

Comments

  1. I have been to the William Herschel museum! I thought it was great - very intimate and interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've never been. Must put it on the list...

    ReplyDelete
  3. If you go to Bath, the Roman Baths are well worth the entrance fee - especially with Bill Bryson's commentary.

    ReplyDelete

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