The Sun

Our Curator, Neil Handley, recently visited the Science Museum's temporary exhibition celebrating everything under the sun, with a few surprise artifacts from our very own museum.

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Author: Neil Handley, Museum Curator 
Date: 20 September 2018

Since before we knew what it really was we have worshipped the Sun, basked in its glory, used it to tell the time and attempted to harness its power. It is the source of all visible light, without which we would see nothing, and it forms the main emblem on the grant of arms and heraldic badge of the College of Optometrists. Considering the gigantic scale of the Sun and the sheer awesomeness of its solar strength, not to mention the numerous ways in which it impinges on daily life (and makes that life possible in the first place) the Science Museum’s new temporary exhibition The Sun: Living With Our Star is a little small, but the scientifically-inclined should still find much to enlighten and promote a warm feeling. It’s certainly one of the brighter exhibitions I’ve seen and that makes it great for taking photos. 

A display case of sunglasses, including one lent by the College, represents the flip side of the story, including the risks to the eyes of unfiltered UV radiation.

The opening section ‘Days and Years’ considers ancient beliefs about the Sun and how its ritual passage across the sky has been used to plot time using sundials, clocks and mechanical models such as the first ever orrery made by John Rowley in 1712. We are then transported to an artificial beach, or is it the deck of a cruise ship? Here, in the section ‘Sunshine and Health’ we are told about the health-giving aspects of soaking in the Sun’s rays as well as the dangers of absorbing too much. An apothecary’s sign featuring Apollo the Sun god denotes this association between light and healing. A display case of sunglasses, including one lent by the College, represents the flip side of the story, including the risks to the eyes of unfiltered UV radiation. Next to this you can try on old sunglasses using a virtual reality interactive.

The third section is called ‘Power from the Sun’ and shows how to generate electricity or even directly cook your food using reflectors. Lastly there is a section on ‘Observing the Sun’ and this will also interest the optically-minded visitor as it includes not only a replica of Galileo’s telescope (circa 1610) used to make the first observations of sunspots, but also Wollaston’s Prism (1802) with which our understanding of the chemical composition of the Sun began, and Lockyer’s seven-prism spectroscope (1868) used to discover Helium. Thanks to optical instruments we were able to discover this element on a distant star before we discovered it on earth! Lockyer bought it off the maker John Browning (we think, no signature is visible) whose greatest moment was still to come in 1895 when he became member number one of the British Optical Association – in effect being elected by his peers as the world’s first professional optometrist.

The Winter Solstice is on 21 December, when the North Pole is tilted away at its maximum angle and the Sun appears at its lowest in the sky. This is the shortest day and although it marks the start of winter it also gives the promise of more hours of sunshine to come. The exhibition is in London until 6 May 2019 and will then transfer to sunny Manchester, so there is plenty of time left to catch a bit of sun.

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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