Review: Dark Skies Festival

Sunday 19th December 2021

In 2019, the Marlborough Town Council became interested in hosting its first Dark Skies Festival to raise awareness of the negative impact of light pollution in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As Director of the College’s Blackett Observatory, I was delighted to be asked to join a small subcommittee to help design the event and the College became a Festival partner.

Plans were swiftly put in place and a date picked by the availability of the Town Hall in October 2020. This unfortunately coincided with a real full moon and thus the idea of a renamed Moon Festival was muted. It also coincided with College being in term time and thus added complications. Fortuitously in many ways, COVID-19 restrictions ensured that the Festival was postponed until 2021. Luckily the Museum of the Moon exhibit, by artist Luke Jerram, was still available and an Arts Council grant successfully secured it as a centrepiece for the Marlborough Dark Skies Festival. The Moon was to be open for public viewing in the last week of the October half-term, and I asked for it to remain for a further week for both College internal use and for local school outreach.

The 2021 Festival was advertised in local media and, with free tickets for most events, rapidly sold out (the first to go, I am proud to say, were the observational sessions at the Blackett Observatory). The Museum of the Moon arrived mid half-term and with bated breath and some brave Barton Farm hands, I oversaw the 2.5 hours to install and inflate it in the College Chapel. It was immediately clear that it was a stunning location and a perfect fit.

The Museum of the Moon opened in Chapel on Monday 25th October. The flow of people was at first a little slow but word soon spread and many turned up without tickets hoping to get in. The sight of such a detailed image: a 23-metre single NASA image from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, taken from an altitude of only 50km above the moon’s surface and with a resolution of detail of only a couple of metres, this would be the best view of the moon any of us would ever get. Though Luke Jerram’s moons (ours was number 8) have been exhibited all over the world, the ability to have it in a school (we were the first) meant that, as well as the unique musical score to accompany it, there were astronomers (myself, Gavin James and Jonathan Genton) on hand to answer questions and to give interesting facts; the most frequently asked question was to show the Apollo 11 landing site. Even for the astronomers, the sight of the Far Side (if any message needed to be got across, it was that there is no Dark Side!) was extraordinary, given we never see this from Earth. By the end of the week some 1,700 members of the public, of all ages, had come through the Chapel.

The Festival then launched on Friday 29th October with my welcome talk in the Town Hall and events were then staged over the weekend with the key note speech delivered by Professor Chris Lintott (BBC Sky at Night) in the Memorial Hall.

Once term resumed in November, it was the chance for all pupils in the College to marvel at the art installation in Chapel and in many cases to have talks from myself under the moon. Classes and Forms were entertained and there were two evenings open to staff and families. All local schools were invited and seven took up the offer, including Swindon Academy. In total some 1,500 local pupils visited in the second week. Parents were invited to enjoy a viewing on the final Saturday of the Moon’s time with us and our whole school Chapel Service took place with the Moon present on the last Sunday. The Moon had certainly had an effect on many, whether to encourage art or poetry, a sense of wonder or indeed humility or a sense of insignificance. The Moon came down after College Chapel and there was a palpable sense of loss. Whatever the legacy, it is certain that we will not see the moon, or perhaps Chapel, in the same light again.

The artist, Luke Jerram, has also produced an Earth and a Mars installation and investigations have already been made to establish whether these might come to the College at some future stage for the delight of our community and those around us.

Charlie Barclay
Head of Astronomy, Director of the Blackett Observatory

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