Skip Main Navigation
4 July, 2005

Grant amount: £3,400,000

National Maritime Museum

  • Grant programme: Trustees' Discretion
  • Region: Nationwide

Towards the construction and fit out of the Peter Harrison Planetarium at Royal Observatory Greenwich

About the organisation

Comprising of the National Maritime Museum, Queen’s House, Royal Observatory and Cutty Sark, Royal Museums Greenwich is dedicated to enriching people’s understanding of the sea, the exploration of space, and Britain’s role in world history. We are a collection of diverse sites with unique identities, overlapping interests, and a common purpose to connect the past to the present and shape our future. As explorers of time, space, place and belonging, the subject matters we feature are uniquely interdisciplinary, allowing us to investigate worlds, bridge cultures, and create connections within the local and wider communities.

Organisation’s objectives:

Royal Museums Greenwich aim to create a shared sense of place, belonging and community for both our local and international audiences, while also recognising and representing diversity and individuality. We want to be a place for dialogue, serving communities of place, need, identity and interest – and we champion this through our “by them, for them” approach.

About the project

Time & Space: The Peter Harrison Planetarium at Royal Observatory Greenwich

In 2003 – 07, RMG embarked on Time & Space – an ambitious project that created the capacity and opportunity to build a a unique learning programme at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, for the very first time. We created new classrooms, interactive galleries and an immersive planeatrium. The incredible support from Peter and the Foundation, made this possible, establishing The Peter Harrison Planetarium which impacted hundreds of thousands of school children and millions of adults since the first show in May 2007. The project to establish a planetarium at the Royal Observatory Greenwich captured Peter’s imagination, bringing together his career in new technologies, a love of learning and a fond childhood memory of his scout master’s lessons on celestial navigation.

Over the span of six financial years, the Peter Harrison Foundation donated £3.42 million to the Royal Observatory Greenwich through the Foundation’s ‘Opportunities through Education’ programme, with the funds being put towards the building, projection equipment and essential maintenance of the Peter Harrison Planetarium. The Peter Harrison Planetarium has helped the Royal Observatory complete the important story of time through exploration and interpretation of modern astronomy for the 21st century visitor.

With the lifespan of the projection systems ending approximately 5 years after the completion of the Planetarium due to the rapid advancement of technology, the Trustees of the Peter Harrison Foundation generously agreed to fund 50% of the system’s replacement costs. This helped equip the Peter Harrison Planetarium with state-of-the-art projection technology, furthering our mission to take visitors through a breathtaking journey through space.

At the opening of the Peter Harrison Planetarium, Peter had commented: ‘I am delighted that, through the Peter Harrison Foundation, we have been able to make possible the construction of this new planetarium as part of the National Maritime Museum’s Time and Space project. This state of the art, innovative planetarium will provide a remarkable educational tool for generations of future visitors to Greenwich – and will enable them to see for themselves the sky and the heavens that have so often inspired me while sailboat racing and navigating across oceans.’

Seventeen years on, the Peter Harrison Planetarium remains hugely popular with many schools and visitors, spreading the awe and wonder of navigating by the night sky that first inspired Peter as a child.

Impact of PHF’s support

The opening of the Peter Harrison Planetarium came at a time when Madam Tussauds announced the closing of their Planetarium – making the Peter Harrison Planetarium the only Planetarium in London, and solidifying its importance within the astronomy and STEM learning community.

The building and refitting of the Peter Harrison Planetarium has provided many training opportunities for our astronomers. Training was provided for the staff and freelance presenters in running the new systems. With the new system, there was also capacity to develop and experiment with new Planetarium shows which included interactive elements and curriculum-based variants (which we could not do previously with the old Planetarium system).

Since the opening of the Peter Harrison Planetarium in May 2007, it has received 2.5 million visitors. The Planetarium has also seen a steady stream of students engaging with the curriculum-related shows that have been developed following the completion of the refurbishment in April 2012. In addition to the mainstay Planetarium shows, we also have specific Planetarium shows to engage specific communities. An example of this would be the Astronomy & Islam Planetarium shows, which take place on select Saturdays and Sundays. This has been an effective way in engaging a wider demographics of visitors, expanding our reach, and making astronomy less abstract and more relatable to all. To date, visitors are still visiting in droves, with the Peter Harrison Planetarium seeing an average of 160,000 visitors a year.

In 2008, the Planetarium received three awards. 1) The Civic Trust Award for a building that has made a different to local people and their communities. 2) The Royal Institute of British Architect (RIBA) shortlisted the Planetarium and the renovated South building for the RIBA awards. RIBA Awards are given for buildings that have high architectural standards and make a substantial contribution to the local environment. 3) At the 2008 Visit London Tourism awards in November 2008, the renovated Royal Observatory, including the Peter Harrison Planetarium, won a bronze award in the new category of Best Tourism Experience.

How does your organisation exemplify PHF’s values?

As with the Peter Harrison Foundation’s values, we exemplify the value of excellence by striving to be the best at what we do. We are committed to doing our best in ensuring spaces within Royal Museums Greenwich are accessible to all, regardless of neurotypicality or physicality.

As part of that commitment, we have introduced Aurora Days, which are specially designed sessions for groups with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities. Visitors do not have to be from a SEND school in order to access these Aurora Days sessions. As part of Aurora Day, we have relaxed Planetarium shows for those who prefer, and will benefit from a calmer environment. These relaxed shows are still presented live by a Royal Observatory astronomer, but with several adaptations from our normal Planetarium shows including:

  1. Room lighting is left at a higher level, bright enough that one can walk around safely, and leave and re-enter the show if they wish to do so.
  2. Narration is much slower and calmer.
  3. The presenter will describe everything before it happens, giving plenty of time for visitors to prepare for any changes in light levels, imagery, or sounds.
  4. A small number of ear defenders will be available to borrow for the duration of the show.
  5. Fewer tickets are available so there is more space to spread out from other visitors.
  6. The show runs at the beginning of the day, so fewer visitors will be around the site in general.

With the Peter Harrison Planetarium being the only Planetarium in London, it is our mission to keep the Planetarium relevant and ahead of its time by featuring the latest technology within the Planetarium. With new technology, we have unprecedented flexibility in show control, and shows can be updated more frequently ensuring that the latest scientific theories or astronomical discoveries are reflected. This keeps the Peter Harrison Planetarium at the top of its game when compared to other Planetariums in the region.

Sustainability and flexibility is also at the core of how we have decided to design the interior of the Planetarium. With the refitting done in 2012, we installed a new seating arrangement to make the Planetarium a more flexible working space. We had a vision of making use of the Planetarium for a range of different events, which has been made possible by the funding received from the Peter Harrison Foundation. These days, the Planetarium is also used for public lectures, where audience members are able to utilise the full range of seats, and the speaker is able to speak from the front of the theatre.