Physical objects are a central feature of any good exhibition, but increasingly digital resources are enhancing the experience of visitors to the exhibition space.
Over the past three years researchers, librarians, archivists, curators and technicians have been working in close partnership to explore the story of Longitude, and also to find ways in which to tell that story to as broad an audience as possible. The Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude exhibition at the National Maritime Museum and the Board of Longitude online digital archive hosted on the Cambridge Digital Library are two of the most important outputs of these projects.
Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition
Ships, Clocks and Stars, tells the extraordinary story of the race to determine longitude at sea. The exhibition, which marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Board of Longitude, is the culmination of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded research project into the history of the Board, and an associated Jisc funded project to digitise the complete archive of the Board along with related materials.
We can thank George Airy for ensuring that the 68 volumes of papers relating to the Board of Longitude were kept together so that they are all available to modern archival explorers. Exploration was the driving force behind the establishment of the original Longitude Prize in 1714. It sought to encourage solutions to a perennial problem; how to establish a ship’s east to west position at sea. The story of the prize can now be explored in detail during the Ships, Clocks & Stars exhibition.
Much like the explorers of old, visitors to the exhibition experience revelations, enabled by the recent digitisation of the papers held in Cambridge University Library. The full digital archive is now presented in all its glory on the Cambridge Digital Library.
Creating a narrative
The exhibition curator, Richard Dunn, has drawn carefully on the digital resource to support the exhibition’s narrative. It would take an inordinate amount of time to read all the papers in the physical archive, but the conversion of the text, held on paper, into searchable data has aided him in revealing links in the archival narrative that would not be as easily discoverable within the physical papers.
He has been able to take this narrative and use it to create a new exhibition narrative. There is, for example, an audio-visual presentation that uses the record of a meeting of the Board of Longitude in 1765 to discuss the crucial 1763-64 sea-trials to Barbados of three potential longitude methods, including John Harrison’s sea-watch, H4.
Interaction and interpretation
The digital archive allows us to get a much better overview of what is contained in the papers and to derive the best information in a relatively short period of time. This is not to suggest that interacting with the tools provided by digital delivery does not require time, but the time spent is less to do with leafing through pages than with identifying links between pieces of information and the analysis of that information.
What is unique (as far as we’re aware!) in this instance is that having seen the exhibition's interpretation of the Longitude story, people will be able to interact with the source material themselves and make their own interpretations. These interpretations may come from a very different perspective - local or family history, scientific or engineering aspects, cartography or art history.
While the exhibition presents some fascinating aspects of the search for Longitude, many of the stories in the archive remain unexplored, and we are very excited about what will emerge from a wider engagement with this extraordinary material.
Co-written with Huw Jones, project manager and metadata specialist at the Cambridge Digital Library.