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‘Museum of the Moon’ Review – Humanity is awesome

Staff writer Nia Simeonova reviews the “Museum of the Moon”, an awe-inspiring installation currently being shown at the Old Royal Naval College.

A few weeks ago I stumbled across this really beautiful Instagram reel – a magnificently painted 18th-century hall with a massive Moon hanging in the middle of it. It looked unreal. As it turned out, it exists – the touring installation “Museum of the Moon” has made a stop at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich this winter. So, in a true hipster and completely non-mainstream way, I set out to recreate it. And maybe listen to “Talking to the Moon” by Bruno Mars while contemplating. You know, basic stuff.

The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, often referred to as “Britain’s Sistine Chapel”, took Sir James Thornhill 19 years to paint and was completed in 1726. “Museum of the Moon” was first created by British artist Luke Jerram in 2016.

The Moon is a lit spherical sculpture with a diameter of seven metres, and it was made using a real image of the moon’s surface, created by NASA. The walls and the ceiling of the Painted Hall are covered by 200 Baroque-style depictions of kings, queens, and mythological creatures.

Upon its completion in 1726, The Painted Hall became a tourist attraction and has been displaying glorious scenes from British history to the public for the last 300 years. “Museum of the Moon”, on the other hand, continues to pile up stories and experiences as it tours around the world. It is an ever-changing project, exploring the significance of the moon for the collective imagination. So far, more than 20 million people in 30 different countries have gazed upon the Moon.

Yet, here they are together – in a gentle collision of lights, nuances and shapes. It’s one of those sights. You look at it and you feel it is complete. To be honest, I just wished I could develop a few more senses in order to take even more of it in.

As soon as you walk in, you get a sense of tranquillity. Nobody is shouting, shuffling or running around the room. Everyone seems immersed in the environment. Children are lying peacefully on the oak benches, looking at the Moon. Even influencers take a break from making pictures and sit down to admire it for a minute. A sense of quiet awe prevails in the room – before the wonders of nature and the greatness of art.

That is one of the features which makes this exhibition stand out. The moon has always been an object of human admiration, the natural source of myth, mystique and beauty for centuries. Here, this element of nature is invited into a space, bursting with human stories and images. In that sense, Luke Jerram and Sir James Thornhill seem to be reaching out to each other across time in a breathtaking collaboration of artistic talent.

Another layer is added by the surround sound composition of composer Dan Jones. With that, the only missing piece is the eye of the beholder. Once the public walks in, the beauty of the imagery itself blends with the beauty of each individual’s experience with it – an aspect Luke Jerram places great importance on in his artworks.

However, as a more cynical observer might ask, why are people so keen on spending so much time looking up at an artificial model of the moon in a hall painted 300 years ago?

Someone dear to me pointed out recently that “there is no reason for a building to be beautiful – it doesn’t make it sturdier, cheaper, or warmer. Still, people with far greater problems than our modern ones, found enough passion and love to carve out superbly detailed ornaments, again and again, in places where simple stone would have sufficed”.

Because we find it beautiful. That is the simple answer. The timeless strive for beauty, at once so human and so transcendent, captures us from time to time, making us feel both small and completely immersed in a bigger whole. The collaboration of Luke Jerram and Sir James Thornhill is one such occasion, and it is exquisite.

When you visit, I recommend that you take a whole Sunday to explore the area. Use the Visitor Centre entrance to buy or redeem your e-ticket (if you don’t want to queue for hours). An £8.50 (or £7.50 online) student ticket gives you access to two guided tours as well as the Painted Hall. For a 45-minute crash course in British history, I really recommend that you check out the 500 Years of History Tour. Ask for Jim, our tour guide. He was just fantastic. The Old Royal Naval College has also been the shooting site of many major films (“Thor” and “The Crown” among many others), so you might want to take the film tour.

Make sure that you also check out Luke Jerram’s other space artwork nearby – “the sculpture of the Earth (Gaia)” – which will remain dipped into the Thames at Canary Wharf until the 28. January 2023.

“Museum of the Moon” will be at the Old Royal Naval College until 5 February 2023. Tickets can be booked in advance here

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