Melbourne Observatory in the Spotlight
|Melbourne's Observatory: not 'stand-alone', but simply part of the Botanic Gardens|
Like so many millions of people, I have always found the stars fascinating.
I knew Melbourne had an observatory but I thought of it, as the signs above indicate, as a lesser- know aspect of the Botanic Gardens. It is certainly a poor cousin to its Sydney counterpart, located in all its glory in a stand-alone heritage sandstone building in the heart of the Rocks. With its wonderful old instruments and loving restoration, clearly the Sydney Observatory has received loads of funding and support over the years. No wonder it rates as one of Trip Adviser's Top Picks for Sydney.
When I learned, via Julianne Bell of Protectors of Public Lands, that our Melbourne Observatory was under threat, I was alarmed. Julianne had passed on the concerns of Dr Barry Clark, a great supporter of the Observatory, who feels that recent planning by the Botanic Gardens Board could further undermine the Observatory's integrity and put paid to its prospects for World Heritage status.
I decided to check the situation out. Within minutes of arriving at the Observatory site, I could see why Barry argues for its unique claim to fame.
|Photoheliograph House & 8" South Equatorial House|
These two buildings had been designed specifically with the Transit of Venus in mind. As the signage puts it: 'Never perhaps in the world's history, did morning dawn on so many waiting astronomers as it did on the the 9th of December 1874.' And Melbourne, at the time the world's southern-most observatory, was right in there, providing its own unique readings as Venus passed in front of the sun, as it does so very rarely.
Magnet House, constructed only with copper nails as iron nails might have undermined the readings of the house's instruments, was devoted to the study of planetary magnesium.
|Astronomers' residence - thank you very much!|
This lovely building, home to a succession of Government Astronomers, was part of the package for those highly valued members of the community.
|Part of Observatory building abutted by information centre and cafe|
Although Aboriginal astronomers had known about the stars for aeons, the settlers had lots to learn, and the Observatory building assumed a key role in that education. It provided star charts, crucial for ships bringing supplies to the colonies. Weather forecasting was part of its role, as was assisting with geographic charting of Victoria. And Observatory personnel even provided life-saving training in heavenly observation to others, such as the team on Douglas Mawson's expedition to the Antarctic.
Having immersed myself in its rich history, I really began to appreciate the unique charms of this under-rated site. I can only agree with the words of one of the signs: 'The buildings stand as testament to the history of our fascination with the stars and to the scientific achievements of the early colony of Victoria.'
I must confess that I know nothing about the resource issues, the politics or the constraints facing the administrators of the Royal Botanic Gardens. However I can't help thinking that the proposed changes to the Observatory site, because of their significance, need a public airing. At least until I hear the other side of the argument, it is difficult not to conclude that having the site further subsumed within the structure of the Gardens would inevitably negate its unique place in Australia's history.
This is probably a pipe dream, but how wonderful if the Melbourne Observatory could be returned to its former glory, independence and centrality, just like its rich cousin in Sydney!