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Exploration and Endeavour: The Royal Society of London and the South Seas: exhibition launch

Professor Penny Sackett, Chief Scientist, and Andrew Sayers, National Museum of Australia, 14 September 2010

ANDREW SAYERS: I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I would like to welcome you all to the opening today of Exploration and Endeavour: The Royal Society of London and the South Seas. I would particularly like to welcome today fellows of the Australian Academy of Science who are here today. Welcome to you all.

This exhibition really originated in an idea of Dr Sue Meek, the Chief Executive of the Australian Academy of Science, who invited the National Museum of Australia to consider holding an exhibition to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society of London. The exhibition is a beautiful exhibition, which I think demonstrates the very strong connections between science and culture and history. It also is a tribute to the role of empiricism in science. The words ‘take no-one’s word for it’, which is the motto of the Royal Society, drove that society to really seek to understand the world from its empirical foundations in the way the world is put together. That is incredibly important as one of the bases of our current culture and age.

It’s great that this exhibition is another Museum collaboration. We like collaborations here at the National Museum of Australia, and this is a great collaborative effort. One of the great things about this exhibition which I really like is that it has real things in it. There is no substitute for the real thing. In fact, in a sense that’s what we’re all about here in the Museum, the contact with real things that bring the past into the present and this exhibition does that in a very effective way.

For this exhibition the Royal Society has lent 21 objects from their collections and they paid for the packing and shipping of the items to Australia. There are 14 documents, four scientific instruments, the Cook medal, a miniature painting and also archival images in reproduction in the exhibition to give some context. There is also a website associated with this exhibition. I would like to thank the staff of the Royal Society who have been particularly helpful in forwarding the exhibition - Dr Felicity Henderson; Joanna Hopkins; Keith Moore, Head of Library and Information Services; and Stephen Cox, the Executive Director. There is also a small number of objects in the exhibition from the National Museum’s own collection, including the Endeavour cannon, plates from Banks’ Florilegium and Captain Cook’s magnifier.

The exhibition team here at the National Museum has been led by curator Michelle Hetherington, and she was assisted by Edwin Ride. The exhibition has been beautifully designed by Freeman Ryan Design - Susan Freeman, Caroline Gilroy and Claudia Brueheim. Many sections from the Museum have been associated with this exhibition - exhibitions, conservation and registration, copyright and reproduction, publications, curatorial, media and marketing have all contributed to the realisation of the exhibition. There’s a beautiful small catalogue for the exhibition. In addition to the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Institute of Marine Science has assisted us with this exhibition.

To open the exhibition I would like to introduce Professor Penny Sackett who is the Chief Scientist of Australia and she’s been the Chief Scientist for Australia since November 2008. Professor Sackett is a physicist by training and an astronomer by profession. She was most recently director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Mount Stromlo and the Siding Spring Observatories at the Australian National University. She is the executive officer to the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council and holds a number of ex-officio roles being a member of the Defence, Science and Technology Advisory Board. As somebody who has made science a part of our lives, I can think of no better person to open the exhibition Exploration and Endeavour. Would you please welcome Professor Penny Sackett.

Prof. PENNY SACKETT: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, colleagues. It’s a pleasure to be today for the launch of the Exploration and Endeavour exhibition. What a perfect name for science - exploration and endeavour. What a wonderful way for the National Museum to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society of London and its ongoing legacy here in Australia. I too would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people and their ancestors as the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting here today at the National Museum.

The Royal Society was founded on the pursuit of knowledge, and it has an illustrious history playing a part in some of the greatest scientific discoveries and developments. In fact, the list of the society’s fellows reads like a history book of science and includes the likes of Newton, Darwin and of course Captain James Cook. In today’s world of technology where mobile phones have GPS capability, it’s amazing to imagine that time when Captain Cook was undertaking voyages in the South Seas carrying incomplete maps and experimental equipment for measuring longitude.

While the motivation of nations at that time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to discover and claim new land, the members of the Royal Society were doing their best to ensure that scientific discovery was also a priority, and the two went hand in hand in these remarkable voyages. The stories of this collection remind us that the Royal Society played an integral part in establishing the importance of focussing on scientific discovery and the advancement of society and how the two are linked. They show us, too, that the scientific practices of the time bear a striking resemblance to those today.

One great example that I must say is a bit dear to my heart is the expedition to study the passage of Venus across the face of the sun as viewed from earth - what is known as the transit of Venus. Edmond Halley of Comet fame proposed that accurate measurements of this event from several different locations would allow for the calculation of the distance from the earth to the sun. He had a plan to expand knowledge base on existing evidence and the capabilities that were available to scientists at the time. He presented his proposal to the Royal Society in the form of a paper which they later published; in other words, his plan passed the scrutiny of his peers - still an important part of the scientific process today.

That first expedition faced many hurdles. In fact, it was an unsuccessful first attempt in many ways, and the Royal Society then resolved to make a second attempt and petitioned King George III to sponsor the trip, securing funding, also still important, and showing the determination that is so common in scientific endeavours. While the transit of Venus was not accurately documented even on that second attempt, the voyage provided the opportunity for many other advancements, including improved maps and extensive observations of the natural environments that were encountered along the way. In fact, none of the voyages described in this exhibition served a single purpose and great examples of scientific collaboration are evident throughout and serve as a reminder of how important this is for the scientific and general community - yet another theme that we carry forward to the future is the importance of collaboration.

This exhibition is not just about the role of the Royal Society and the exploration of the South Seas and the discovery of Australia, it also documents the important part the Royal Society played in establishing the practice of scientific endeavour in the new colonies. The fine scientific tradition of the Royal Society has indeed carried on in our country and is seen most readily today in the Australian Academy of Science, which was formed in 1954 by the members of the Royal Society. This exhibition reminds us of what has been achieved by a scientific community in that relatively short period of time - I speak as an astronomer - all these periods of time seem rather short to me.

As the Royal Society only celebrates its anniversary every 50 years, I would like to leave you with a question: What do you think might be achieved and what would you like to be achieved in the coming 50 years? What do you think the priorities should be for science and for science in Australia in those next 50 years, carrying forward the tradition of excellence, endeavour and worldwide collaboration. Thank you and please enjoy this tremendous exhibit – Exploration and Endeavour. Thank you.

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you very much, Professor Sackett. It was great that you left us with some questions for the future. One of the things that the Museum seeks to do is to talk about the past, to talk about the way in which the past informs the present, but also to pose questions for our future. I think that’s a very significant set of questions that we have to ponder about the future of our culture and science within it.

The exhibition is now open. The exhibition is in a new gallery space for the Museum called the studio space. It used to be a recording studio but now, in order to show more of the collection and to show more exhibitions, it’s been converted into display space, something you will see a lot morph in the Museum over the future couple of years. Please make sure that you pick up a copy of the catalogue for the exhibition. It’s very modest in scale but beautifully designed by Sarah Evans and with beautiful text by Michelle Hetherington. It’s in the Museum shop for $19.95. Please enjoy the great morning tea we have for you, the company of your colleagues and the exhibition. Thank you for coming.

Date published: 11 October 2010