The solar eclipse - Professional advice for the 'amateurs'

Find out more about the Eye Museum's fascinating collection of eclipse memorabilia.

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Author: Neil Handley, Museum Curator
Date: 18 March 2015

In all the eager anticipation for the solar eclipse I am reminded of the last such event in 1999. We collected various commercial and prototype ‘solar viewers’ for the museum and you can see them on our website here. On the day itself, College staff went out into Trafalgar Square and the pigeons (who hadn’t yet been evicted by Mayor Ken Livingstone) were both visibly and audibly confused when day turned apparently to night.

We still await the weather report to know if we’ll witness something similar this time around. In an attempt to perform some last minute education on the assembled crowd that August day we took one of our antique prints out to show them. It’s a 19th century lithograph by the Van Lier Brothers, originally published in the Album Charivarique, entitled Caricatures du Jour - Les Amateurs D'Eclipse. If you love eclipses too then this print is for you. It shows both what you should and shouldn’t do.

First of all I love the fact that one person has climbed on the shoulders of a circus performer, himself standing on a stool, to get as it were, closer to the action. It’s nearly 93 million miles to the sun so the extra five or six feet won’t make much difference. Of course, this person ought not to be viewing the eclipse directly at all, still less through a telescope with its serious risk of retinal burn. The man on the left has a serious piece of astronomical kit, a multi-draw telescope that might just about channel the sun’s rays into a lethal weapon. Another man stares only slightly less dangerously through a glass bottle, perhaps wrongly assuming its tinted glass will filter away the harm. The dogs have been tethered as a precaution, but it might have been better if they had been shut away altogether indoors. It turns out these are potential guide dogs: the French-language sign translates as ‘Poodles to rent, for getting around in the darkness’. Now there’s an entrepreneurial idea!

Despair turns to relative joy however when we witness an indirect method of viewing the eclipse in the bottom right. Someone is tracking the passage of sun and moon  via the reflection in a pail of water. As the main caption reads ‘Astronomy is a bit tiring’, presumably the words of the circus pierrot, but it could so easily be blinding so the College urges you to take care this Friday. 

Neil Handley MA AMA FRSA
Museum Curator, The College of Optometrists

Neil Handley is recognised as one the UK’s principal historians of spectacles, vision aids and opticians. He has been curator of the British Optical Association Museum at The College of Optometrists in London since 1998 and is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.

The Curator is available for lectures and informal talks off-site as well as guided tours of the museum gallery and College Meeting Rooms. Considered to be an authority on ophthalmic history he can also advise on items on optical and optometric heritage including their identification and dating. He has been awarded the medal of the Ocular Heritage Society of America on several occasions.

Neil was awarded the Associateship of the Museums Association in 2002 and was one of the first 17 museum professionals in the country to gain the AMA+ qualification in May 2007. He now serves as a Museums Association Mentor for younger curators.

Neil was elected Chairman of the prestigious London Museums of Health and Medicine (2011-14), widely considered within the profession to be one of the most dynamic and go-ahead museum specialist networks. During this time he oversaw that organisation's first strategic review for fifteen years. He is also a past Vice Chairman of the Scientific Instrument Society and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) in 2012.

Front cover of the book Cult Eyewear 2011

Neil  has published articles on spectacle frame design, the history of opticians, artificial eyes and facial prosthetics. He has contributed to a number of books on the history of the subject, including a chapter on artificial eyes for the book Devices and Designs (2006) and the major German publication Treasury of Optics (2012). He spent much of 2009 and 2010 writing a book on Cult Eyewear, the first serious analytical study of the historical development of branded fashion spectacle frames, published by Merrell on 27 September 2011. He also co-authored, with David Cartwright, the second volume of the College History, The College of Optometrists: A History 1998-2015, published in October 2015. He has also written articles for journals as diverse as Optometry in Practice, Contact Lens and Anterior Eye, Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, From the Master and Wardens (newsletter of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers), Ophthalmic Antiques, Gewina (Dutch Journal for the History of Science), Antiquarian Horology and Pharmaceutical Historian.

Contact the Curator by email

Or follow him on Twitter @neilhandleyuk

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