Friday, 26 September 2014

Ships, Clocks and Stars: Time is money

We all have favorite places, and I suppose I could honestly say that apart from the Wellington public library in my hometown (at least, in the way I remember it, as I am sure it has changed considerably since I last visited), my one other favorite place is Greenwich in London. (The Venetian port of Hania is a nice place, but it's not my favorite place. Favorite place in Hania? The balcony of our home.) My main interest in Greenwich lies in the concept of Time. Despite living in Greece for more than 2 decades, I still retain a New Zealand (and by extension British) concept of Time: Time involves precision and it is exact. Time gives me freedom: if I can finish my chores early, I will have more Time available to spend as I want. Therefore, Time is very important to me, and I don't like to waste it. Because I treat time like a precious possession, I often tell my family that I don't really care if they waste my money, because eventually I will earn some more, but if they waste my Time, I'll never get that back. You win money, you lose money, but with time, you only lose it.
National Maritime Musueum, Greenwich
This ship in a bottle by Yinka Shonibare was originally displayed on the 'fourth plinth' in  Trafalgar Square (which now has a blue rooster sitting on it) and is now on permanent display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I was fascinated by the textile designs of the sails due to my own interest in fabrics

When we first visited London as a family in 2006, the Royal Museums Greenwich complex had free admission to the Royal Observatory, and the Prime Meridian area was also free to visit. The Cutty Sark was undergoing renovations at the time (it would be the victim of a massive fire only a year later). One of the most interesting exhibitions at the time at Greenwich was a Time gallery featuring the search for precision in time-keeping while at sea. This consisted mainly of the history of John Harrison's clocks, devised especially for keeping time in the open sea, which were instrumental in allowing sailors to sail safely. This Time gallery had only recently opened, as I discovered from the website (this link is old, but I was surprised that it still worked, although some links on the page do not work; the link backs up what I thought might have happened at the museum since our fist visit), and I recall that photography was not allowed in the Time gallery. But I remembered a lot of things that I saw and heard there which made an impression on me - John Harrison's clock prototypes, the establishing Longitude while sailing in the ocean with no land in sight, and the stories concerning a monetary prize for the person who could solve the longitude problem at sea.

The Walkie Talkie (later known as the Walkie Scorchie or Fryscraper after parts of cars parked below it began melting), the Cheese Grater, and the Gherkin, as seen from Greenwich.

On last year's visit to Greenwich, at the request of my children, we visited the Planetarium at the Royal Observatory ('It's not as big as the Athens planetarium, Mum', my son informed us.) While we were there, I looked round for the Time gallery featuring  John Harrison's timepieces; alas, it did not seem to be where I remembered them. The Meridian Line area was now open only for fee-paying customers, which is also where Harrison's clocks were all hiding. We asked about ticket prices and were told we could 'upgrade' the tickets we had already paid for the Planetarium to include entrance to the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian courtyard. It was a very cold foggy day which dampened our interests in the courtyard. We decided to give it a miss.
London 2006

I am not surprised that this part of the Greenwich museum is no longer free. Admission charges were first introduced in 2011. It is a beautiful place to visit, and it has the perfect tourist traps to turn it into a money spinner. Even in 2006, despite the free entrance, we were still required to pick up a free paper ticket, and a guard was stationed at the entrance to take it. It proved to be such a popular visiting venue that it was inevitable it would eventually be spruced up and turned into a user-pays attraction. 
London 2006 (left) and 2014 (right)

Before going to London this year, I checked the Royal Museums Greenwich website for more information about John Harrison's timepieces. A link led me to embedded links for descriptions of various items that I thought I'd seen before. The site's homepage was also advertising an exhibition (with an admission fee) about the anniversary of the Longitude Act which offered the monetary prize that prompted John Harrison to make his clocks. Ships, Clocks and Stars sounded like an exhibition I was interested in. A review of the exhibition made it sound quite enticing. I decided to take the whole family to see it.
Prime Meridian 2006 (left) and 2014 (right) - the tree branch seems to have stayed the same shape!

A family ticket for the exhibition costs 22 pounds, which perhaps doesn't sound very expensive for London prices, but for Greek prices, where admission fee to the New Acropolis Museum is (still) a mere 5 euro per adult, it sounds quite high. This all rests on the way that the UK makes use of museums in its economy, by attaching value to obscure items, creating an air of importance to what may seem insignificant on first sight, and placing a value on history to make it have some kind of economic impact. (More information can be found on this topic here.) UK museums are run for a profit, using all sorts of ways to make money, from selling 'stuff', making visitors pay for any printed material including maps, using sponsors, asking for donations - virtually anything and everything is turned into a money-spinning attraction. Even a ground map of the museum area is no longer free (it costs €1 - last year, I picked one up for free).
Enticing people to part with their money - and to have some fun doing it.

All this is in complete contrast to the way the Greek state treats nearly all archaeological sites (which state-run museums are often attached to in Greece): Greeks, generally speaking, underrate their historical and archaeological wealth, and they do not capitalise on it in any significant way. A recent report suggests that apart from the New Acropolis Museum, Greece makes very little income out of ancient Greek sites compared with the European average museum site - €6 per head compared to the European average of €19. The Greek ticket pricing system rarely offers annual (membership), frequent visitor or pre-sold tickets, (which are more costly but guarantee the museum a higher income per head); the cost of entering less significant archaeological sites is often cheaper than the price of a cup of coffee at a cafe (as an example, the entrance fee to the much-talked about in recent times Amphipolis archaeological museum is a mere €2!) - and most Greeks would choose the latter, prompting the joke made by Greek comedian Katerina Vrana: if the Parthenon was turned into a taverna, more Greeks would visit it; there is little in the way of quality merchandise for sale in museums (where easy profits can be made); ancient sites are not promoted in any significant way (take for example the site of the original Olympic Games in Olympia - in any other country, it would be a world heritage park), and attempts to increase the significance of such sites have crashed when faced with bureaucracy.
London won the prize for Longitude 0º in 1884 - for 8.50 pounds, you to can get the chance to straddle the point where the eastern and western hemispheres meet, standing in just one place. 

In other words, there is immense wealth to capitalise on in Greece, which could be a huge source of income for the country, if handled correctly. The success of the tourism industry in a country should not be based on attracting a higher number of tourists every year: it's more about continuing to develop the tourist product at a faster rate, in order to maintain people's interest, and to keep them coming back, but not to see the same things all the time, they should be getting more - and nicer - surprises every time they visit. Take Greece's recent spectacular find at Amphipolis - and a great money-spinner for the future: Greece should set a plan in motion to capitalise on the Amphipolis finding and turn Amphipolis into a whole industry.
National Maritime Museum's Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition
The introduction to the  Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition involved a whole wall taken up by a moving sea - with a few words from the sponsors of the exhibition.

We entered a rather dark room at the entrance to the Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition, where I noticed the big sign again saying no photography allowed, and we began exploring the exhibition. My kids can read and understand almost anything of their level in English, but I wanted to explain all the texts to my husband, whose English is based more on oral skills gleaned in the taxi business. So I started reading the texts... and this is where I had a deja vu experience. I realised that I had read all these texts before! Being an English language teacher, I read many texts on a wide variety of subjects, and I often remember what I have read from a previous reading experience. This is very important in my work where I read scientific thesis work on topics that I know very little about.
Perhaps the lighting adds mystique - I found it annoyingly dark, making reading difficult.

Now all these skills obviously didn't help me find the original John Harrison Time gallery when I was searching for it online ... because it wasn't there. It had been removed a short while after I had seen it, and put away for future use. So, the exhibits were there (Harrison's famous clocks were moved from where they are usually on display to the paying public), the texts were there too, and all that was needed was a repackaging! In bubble wrap, I presume...
For museums to retain a sense of importance in our own time period, which is based on instant information, interesting graphics, and simultaneous sound and moving images, they need to take a multimedia approach to telling us our history. This table uses film, text and sound in various ways to narrate historical events - gone are the days when museums contained artifacts that carried just a little description below them. 

The exhibition lighting was rather poor, and I found the whole experience too short to justify the cost (which would have been 8.50 pounds per adult, if we weren't buying a family ticket). I don't think I learnt anything new from it than I had learnt 6 years ago when I saw the same exhibition material packaged a different form, and all for free. The subject matter was generally 'dollied up' by graphic material, but the actual storyline remained the same. The Ships, Clocks and Stars was created to celebrate (and capitalise on) the anniversary of the 1714 Longitude Act. I don't think it was the most interesting exhibition I've been to before, and I did not build on that thrill of excitement that I sensed when I first saw/read/heard this material in 2006. I guess it didn't live up to my expectations.
John Harrison's sea clocks on display at the National Maritime Museum
John Harrison's timepieces - the most important one is in fact the smallest (on the right).

The entrance fee that we paid also gave us access to Flamsteed House, where there was an exhibition running called Longitude Punk'd. This exhibition was the hardest to explain to my Greek family: what do you tell people who are not acquainted with the English concept of art and literature as they intertwine with science fiction from a past time?! On view were weird spacesuits, and excerpts from strange poems, all of which sounded like science fiction, except that the exhibits referred to the 18th century, when people were still searching for longitude, even though the exhibits and stories were created in the 21st century. Not to mention the poem accompanying the exhibits about a commodore and kiwi birds that were trying to find Longitude... That particular part of the exhibition was lost on my family. It was confusing for them - the 'unrealness' of the contents of the exhibition were not adequately explained. Longitude Punk'd was a chance for creative artists to express themselves - but there are some types of art forms that can only be appreciated with appropriate education. I didn't want to confuse the family any more than need be, and more importantly, I didn't want the factual Longitude exhibition to be lost on them, so I told them not to pay too much attention to what they saw here. (Under normal circumstances, they would have seen John Harrison's time machines displayed here.)
According to The Rime of the Commodore in the Longitude Punk'd exhibition, the commodore was hoping to learn more about the SATori (a Zen Buddhism word meaning 'a sudden state of intuitive enlightment') NAVigational system from the kiwi birds which is now universally known as SAT NAV. (... A museum is perhaps not the best place for this kind of creative expression.)

Besides, we had other plans for the afternoon, which were also centred on Time. We wanted to go shopping, but we had to keep in mind that most of the 'regular' (as opposed to tourist-centred) stores in London are closed by 6pm. The eight-hour day is religiously observed in British culture, with just one day in the week being made available for late-night opening. This is in complete contrast to Greece where stores open until late at least three nights a week. Supermarkets open all day long in most countries, and in Greece, multinational clothes stores (eg Zara) are now also keeping their shops open all day long, but small shopkeepers take a break in the middle of the day and reopen in the late afternoon. There is no such thing as a split timetable in London. The cultural aspects of store-keeping differ among countries, but the way Time is viewed in a country is also an important element of stores' opening and closing times. Time defines how cities like London move. In Western societies, Time is money. Time is not freedom; money is freedom. Your Time is taken up by calculating the money you will make from your Time. You can see this in the way that everything in London is organised around train timetables. Even entertainment is scheduled to finish in time for the last train home. Many people would agree that the concept of Time in Greece is more fluid: exact appointment times are not really adhered to. Even TV programmes do not play according to what the TV schedule states. 3 o'clock is the same as 5 minutes past 3 in Greece. In Western countries, that would be an adequate reason to lodge a complaint with the TV channel or the train operators. It is only lately that Greeks are considering the concept of Time as something exact. Lateness has always caused annoyance among Greeks, but it was generally tolerated. This is slowly starting to change as Greece undergoes the greatest reform that ever took place in the country (and perhaps the world, by global standards).

Before we left the Royal Observatory area, we 'did' the Prime Meridian, where there was a huge queue of people waiting to have their photo taken along the line that supposedly marks Greenwich Mean Time. The whole experience felt rather touristy, compared with my previous visit in the same area, which took place in much colder weather, and there were no barriers round the Royal Observatory. I don't remember any queues for the Meridian Line, either, nor for the Cutty Sark, which is now surrounded by a very commercial section selling items associated with tea, not to mention the usual touristy souvenirs at exaggerated prices.
Above: Tea being sold at the Cutty Sark, a ship that celebrates the great British institution of tea drinking. The ship was in the midst of being restored when a fire destroyed a number of parts. It now bears no resemblance to what I saw of the ship's exterior in 2006. The area around the phantasmagorically renovated ship was turned into a souvenir shop. The entrance fee sounds ludicrously expensive.

London is now a heavily marketed city, in all spheres; you spend your time according to your pocket, and a splendid time is guaranteed for all. There is something in it for everyone, as long as you can afford your choices. 'What's On' brochures line the information desk at the entrance to the main Greenwich museum area detailing all sorts of activities, all carrying a wide variety of fees, to suit everyone's pockets. You can:
"Take a special trip through The Art & Science of Exploration, 1768-80 exhibition, followed by a reflective meditative journey" (13 pounds per person). 
If you prefer something more academic, you can attend:
"A day of talks, informal group discussions and gallery tours, exploring the relationship between science and empire" (30 pounds per person). 
There is also something available in the after-work hours for the plebs, and at a much cheaper price:

"Delve into the re-imagined world of Georgian London, and try your hand at life-size parlour games, quench your thirst with Georgian gin and tonic, and design your own wig" (5 pounds per person)

The Great Map on the first floor of the National Maritime Museum - The Mediterranean Sea hides so many treasures on its seabed, and been fed by so much human blood over the centuries.

If you don't feel like spending any money at all, you can browse through the many free galleries of the museum complex, taking a rest on the bench in front of the Great Map (but not at the back of it, because that area is reserved for the cafe patrons), admiring the magnitude of the world we live in. I imagine young children wouldn't get too bored too quickly - they could easily spend two hours in the same spot, before they get very tired. In this way, you could take them to visit the general area many times. If the weather is good, you don't need to spend any money at all (apart from travel expenses) - Greenwich Park is huge, it has many tracks for avid walkers/runners/bikers, and from the top of the hill where the Royal Observatory is located, the views of London are magnificent.

Mardi gras atmosphere at the Tall Ships Festival

We also happened to be visiting the area during a Tall Ships Festival, which created a mardi gras atmosphere in the lawn areas outside the main museum buildings. There were bands playing, and a mast-climbing frame for anyone who wanted to see what it felt like to be a sailor, or perhaps a pirate (the kids tried it). There were also stalls selling branded sandwiches and drinks. We had bought our own sandwiches, complementing them with drink from the museum's cafe , where there is an indoor picnic area, for those (like us) who had bought a packed lunch. If I were to recall the greatest moment during this year's visit to Greenwich, I'd say it was being outdoors and enjoying the London sunshine, enjoying the views of London's changing skyline from the Royal Observatory, which seems to become more and more obscured with concrete and glass as the years go by, and sitting at the water's edge watching the river traffic on the Thames.
Lunch at Greenwich 

London was quite a different city in March 2006 when we first visited, compared to what it is now: in the previous year, London had been chosen as the city that would host the Olympic Games in 2012; this news was followed the next day by the London underground attacks by suicide bombers. It continues to evolve, but the rate of development seems to be in line with making the city an expensive place, both to visit and to live. If it weren't for our London friends, this trip would not even have been possible. And through our friends, we get a glimpse into London's suburban life. (More on that in another post.)

Both the Ships, Clocks and Stars and Longitude Punk'd exhibitions run until the 4th of January, 2015, at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.  The above photos are my own, except the ones of the exhibition, which come from The Guardian. For much more enlightenment on the subject of finding Longitude and the life and work of John Harrison, look up Dava Sobel's Longitude (it's available online). A film based on her work was made into a TV mini-series (you can also watch that online too). The book and film are quite different, and both are worth getting hold of.

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