Summer Picnic : Liverpool July 2017

The annual summer picnic for the Society for the History of Astronomy this year was held in Liverpool, on Saturday 1st July 2017.

The picnic is an annual feature in the Society’s calendar and aims to combine an opportunity to socialise with other SHA members a chance to visit somewhere pertinent to the history of astronomy.

This year the meeting was organised by the SHA’s Membership Secretary, Gerard Gilligan, who arranged for the picnic attendees to get a unique behind the scenes look at two of Liverpool’s iconic institutions, the newly rebuilt Central Library and its archives, and the internationally renowned World Museum.

The day commenced in the museum’s planetarium which was opened especially for the SHA. Patrick Kiernan, the planetarium’s educational demonstrator and SHA member, gave a fascinating talk on the history of globes and planetaria using the dome to project his slides onto. Following this, he played an educational video on astronomy so we all had an opportunity to observe the night sky and in all its glory above our heads; a really spectacular feeling. The party was then divided into two much smaller groups for unique tours behind the scenes of both the World Museum and the Central Library.

Wendy Simkiss, Assistant Curator of Earth and Physical Sciences, took us into the bowels of the museum, well away from public areas, and showed us various items she had prepared for us. Amongst these was a model of William Lassell’s observatory (the actual observatory was erected in 1840 and a report appears in the MNRAS), and the finder scope of his original 24″ speculum mirror telescope. The museum also had the 24″ mirror on loan and we had an opportunity to marvel at this. Wendy took us to see how other artefacts are stored and catalogued and talked to us about restoration and preservation of artefacts.

The second behind the scenes tour was undertaken on the third floor of Liverpool’s Central Library, the neighbouring building to the museum. There we met Helena Smart, Senior Archivist for Liverpool City Council, who showed us the public areas where records and archives are accessed and described the types of materials within the library’s archives. Helena then took us into behind the scenes. The first stop was into the restoration and preservation laboratory; climate controlled, clinically clean with machines and devices to allow staff to rebuild torn pages, crumbling paper, and even to fumigate infested materials. Next, we went into one of the stores, with rows and rows of electronically moving shelves and a much cooler ambient temperature; Helena talked about how the types of materials being submitted to the archives are changing and not uncommonly hard drives are handed over which poses a myriad of issues for the archiving staff. The next stop was back to the reading room where Helena had pulled out various astronomical treats from the archives relating to Liverpool Astronomical Society, and to the wider field of astronomy in general. The library tour finished with a look at the older parts of the building, and the circular Picton Reading Room, in particular, appealed to me, though the acoustics amplify even the slightest of sounds which shatter the otherwise silence amongst the readers.

Liverpool isn’t a place I’ve explored before but this day out has whetted my appetite to go back. A wonderfully educational and inspiring day and great to catch up with old friends.

James Dawson FRAS
SHA Librarian
Nottingham