The Royal Greenwich Observatory: Imperial Artefact16 minute read

The Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) has a long history going back to its foundation in 1675. It was created for navigational purposes, but its functions increased with the years and were led by the appointed Astronomer Royal (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016). In an 1884 International Conference held in Washington, D.C., Greenwich was chosen as the location of Earth’s prime meridian and the starting point for the international time zones. The RGO remained a central site of scientific work until the observatory was transferred to Herstmonceux in the 1940s, then to the University of Cambridge in 1990, and was finally closed in October 1998. Meanwhile, the building of the Old Royal Observatory, which was renamed the Royal Observatory Greenwich opened as a museum in 1960 (Dolan and Higgit, 2009), administered by the National Maritime Museum.

The scientific production of the RGO was vital for the expansion of the British dominion over the seas and over time measurement and, in the present, it stands as an important touristic attraction in the area. This combination of science, time, and national pride, makes the observatory an interesting place to study how the empire permeated into different dimensions of space in London. For all these reasons, I argue that the RGO can be studied as an imperial artefact because its practical functions have changed through history but have always maintained its role as a symbol of the centrality of London. Specifically, I will explore the cultural implications of the establishment of the prime meridian and the standard time zone in this site.

To do that, I will begin by providing a conceptual framework on culture and the imperial city. My analysis will then be organized in three parts. First, I will focus in the role of the scientific work of the Observatory for the empire and its definition as prime meridian. Secondly, I will address the implications of the standardization of time for the Londoners. Finally, I will move to the present of the observatory to show how the effort to connect the organization of time to the centrality of London persists today, but with additional economic and cultural implications.

Conceptual framework

Culture is a problematic term to define. That is why, for the effects of this essay, I will consider the conceptualization of culture and its production provided by Don Mitchell (2000) in Cultural geography: a critical introduction. I acknowledge this is an approach that heavily relies on money and the commodification of culture and that addresses more contemporary issues of cultural production, but it still provides a useful framework to study the cultural implications of the RGO. In a similar way, empire and the imperial can have so many angles of analysis that I will stick to Driver and Gilbert’s (1989; 2000) perspective of the empire through its impact in the European cities.

In Mitchell’s (2000) approach, culture is defined as “the system of humanly expressive practices by which values are renewed, created, and contested” (Inglis cited in Mitchell, 2000, p. 71). Values are “little concentrations of meaning” in the actions that fix them as good or important (ibid). This implies that what really exists is an idea of culture, developed under specific historical conditions, and consisting of “differing arrays of power to organize society” (idem, p. 74). An idea of culture exists as long as someone has the power to define it and fix that definition. So, the process of cultural production involves struggles over the definition of meanings, where the victorious ends up reifying them and hiding the process through which they came to be (Latour in Mitchell, 2000, 77). The production of culture requires the existence of a “critical infrastructure”(Zukin cited in Mitchell), which is the group of people whose job is “to implement ideas about culture, and to solidify ways of life in place” (Mitchell, 2000, p. 83). This shows the active nature of the production of culture and its insertion into the capitalist logic: it can be turned into profit and depends on a division of labor.

Now, it is equally important to establish in which terms I am referring to the empire. In this sense, I will align with Driver and Gilbert (1998; 2000), who go beyond the traditional studies of the effects of the imperialism abroad to bring attention to how it shaped the “cultural geography of European cities” (Driver and Gilbert, 1998, p. 11-12). They stress also “the distinctively European dimension to the modern imperial city” (Driver and Gilbert, 2000, p. 25), by highlighting how the global process of imperialism modified the identity of the colonizers as did of the colonized. They argue that the “political, commercial, cosmopolitan, scientific, and popular” (Driver and Gilbert, 2000, p. 24) dimensions of the empire could be experienced throughout the city in places as different as the museums, the docks, or the shopping districts. In London, the “relative lack of a monumental cityscape” was associated with a “distinctively British imperialism of liberalism and free-trade” (Driver and Gilbert, 1998, p. 25) and so, the most notable characteristic of London as imperial and world capital became associated with movement, and trade.

The linkage between the RGO, time, science, and empire

The history of the observatory and its definition as the prime meridian, made the RGO a valuable asset for the empire as it positioned London in the geographical and symbolical center of the world. This was achieved through the British dominance in science; a Western paradigm that can be read as a form of cultural production, if one interprets it through the definitions of culture provided above. As Driver and Gilbert (2000) point out, London was imperial since before the 19th century as it was the capital of a nation-state that defined its interests through overseas expansion and global trade. This status was achieved by astronomical research that developed the maps and instruments needed for navigation. Because of its contribution to the expansion of the empire, the observatory and its scientific production was deemed as “good and important”.

In 1884, the International Prime Meridian Conference was held in Washington, D.C. and resulted in the establishment of the universal day as measured in 24 hours beginning at midnight Greenwich Mean Time (Dolan and Higgit, 2009). This event has major implications for the significance of the RGO as an imperial artefact as its existence and importance was brought to the international politics scenario: “It was the only occasion at which an international group of experts sat together with diplomats to discuss these issues from scientific, commercial and even political angles” (idem, 39). In a sense, it was a debate through which the meaning of time was defined in the terms of those who were there, in an attempt to make it something universally standard, to be later reified and seen as natural, in Mitchell (2000) terms. Furthermore, as Barrows (2010) notices, this convention took place in the context of a larger effort of imperial powers to consolidate their worldwide power; is not a coincidence that it established in the same year that the Berlin Conference was held to divide Africa among them.

What I consider more important to stress now is how the RGO, as a scientific institution, embodied the modernity values that were key in the European imperial experiences. Science, said Roy MacLeod, cited by McAleer (2013), became a ‘metonym for empire’ (p. 393). As Smith (1991) remarks, the novelties in scientific work in the late 19th century were tied to a broader shifting in the “political economy of nineteenth-century British science” where the types of knowledge to be generated there were tied to political issues. McAleer (2013) goes deeper into this by addressing the role of astronomy research in the peripheries of the empire. He states that scientific practices abroad were useful to acquire knowledge about the non-European spaces, having economic and political implications, but also acting as an input for the building of colonizer and colonized identities.

The importance of science for the empire was reasserted by the creation of observatories in places such as the Cape of Good Hope or India, which connected different sites of the empire, but also highlighted the distinctions between the European and the non-European scientific endeavors. The overseas observatories were “dependent upon metropolitan capabilities, concerns and priorities” (394), as Greenwich supplied the instruments necessary to do research. Meanwhile, in the metropoles, “science was rapidly becoming a badge of national achievement” (408) that was shown through the exhibitions, publications and conferences held throughout Europe. In London, this symbolic importance of science was also boasted by areas such as South Kensington, where science was linked to other cultural expressions in the form of museums that together contributed to the capital’s imperial display (Driver and Gilbert, 1998).

The impact of the universal time for the Londoners

The position of the RGO as a mark of London’s centrality in an international level leads me to consider its relevance at the local level, following Driver and Gilbert’s perspective on the effects of the empire on the city. The evidence I found points in a different direction than the discourse of the British empire dominance of time shown above, but it also reveals the relation between the production of knowledge, meanings, and material realities such as the market economy. I base my reflection, also, on Mitchell’s (2000) emphasis on the contested nature of the set of values, ways of life, etc. that make up the idea of culture at a given moment.

First, the Greenwich endeavors must be seen as a part of the “large-scale social process of rationalization” (Smith, 1991, p. 18) that took place in 19th century London. This was shown directly through the tasks performed at the observatory for different departments of the Admiralty, but also through the indirect part played by Greenwich time in a group of legislative reforms motivated by “The moral drive to regulate and standardize aspects of daily life” (Nye and Rooney, 2009, p. 5). The authors explore how this “standardizing culture” was linked to practical demands of society, such as alcohol and working conditions, and of the industries that revolved around time: the chronometers, telegraphs, and other infrastructures. In this sense, four years before the Prime Meridian Conference, the British Parliament passed the Definition of Time Act, which defined Greenwich Mean Time as the time standard to apply to all legislation (idem, 19).

It is interesting how, even if the dominant discourse links the standardization of time to the power of Britain abroad, Nye and Rooney’s (2009) connect it to the lived spaces of capital city concerning practical issues and capture the particularity of British imperialism, heavily influenced by private interests and trade given the weakness of the state (Drive and Gilbert, 1998, p. 16). In this line, at the local level, standard time seemed “a powerful fiction of global uniformity” (Barrows, 2013, p. 266) which was supported by a massive material infrastructure. This infrastructure was managed by the government and through the activity of enterprises such as the Standard Time Company, which pushed the standardization of time both for profit and for an alleged interest in the public good (Nye and Rooney, 2009). As these considerations show, the Greenwich time did not impacted Londoners lives because of its cultural-symbolic meaning, but because of groups of people who actively promoted its adoption. This fact shows the cultural nature of standard time, as it was a classification devised by people with specific interests that had to struggle to set it as a reified thing.

The present of the Royal Observatory Greenwich

Finally, this section considers the transition of the observatory from its scientific function to a museum. Even if deprived from its direct relation to the production of scientific knowledge useful for the empire –which I have argued that gave it much of its cultural and economic value– the RGO maintained its role as a place indicating the centrality of London by being transformed into a museum. This can be understood by coming back to Mitchell’s (2000) framework, which emphasizes how a certain definition of culture and causes and produces economic value through its commodification.

If we live in a world of image and representation, the creation of discourses around objects and places is what gives them a particular value that someone wants to highlight. This is useful for the purpose of those who create culture as it is a way in which the meanings can be materialized and turned into tangible assets. For the case of the RGO, Dolan and Higght (2009) trace how the idea of Greenwich as “the point where east meets west, even the centre of the earth” could be used to showcase the importance of the RGO and the nation. That is why the line of the meridian was physically marked for the public since the early 1910s, its image connected with the myth of the 1884 as its founding moment (p. 37). When the building in Greenwich lost its function as Royal Observatory, the traced line of the meridian remained in place. As the authors explain, plans were made to transform the building into a museum part of the National Maritime Museum complex.

Before the opening of the RGO as a museum, the director of the National Maritime Museum, Frank Carr, stated that the RGO and the meridian would be a great tourist attraction to visitors from overseas and that he aimed to show them the historic site, the instruments and ‘the spot where they can stand “with one foot in the Eastern and one in the Western Hemisphere’” (Nye and Rooney, 2009, p. 38). This seems a softer approach to the “consolidation of the empire” than that of the scientific contributions to navigation, but it also carries economic and symbolic value that persists today. Currently, visitors are encouraged to “make the pilgrimage up the hill in Greenwich Park and get their photo taken on the official Prime Meridian Line” (Royal Museums Greenwich, 2016). They can also purchase a variety of souvenirs that remind them that they were at “the home of space and time”.

If we read this in Mitchell (2011) terms, the interpretation is that the people behind the museum are building the economic value of the place by both exploiting the historical meanings behind the observatory and by reinforcing the discourse of Greenwich as the center of the universe, the origin of time through the already reified notion of museums as culture. Paradoxically, this claims of centrality could be more accurate today than they were in the past century, now that the GMT has been practically universally adopted. Additionally, as Driver and Gilbert (2000) bring to attention, from the geographical position of the observatory, those who visit it can also witness a magnificent view of London, where the different faces of the imperial city can be traced: the Royal Naval Hospital building, the Thames, the dome of St. Paul’s, the docks, and now Canary Wharf, the London Eye, the Millennium Dome… All sites that give London its particularity and attractiveness now, and also its centrality, and that cannot be disassociated from its imperial past.


Throughout this essay, I aimed to frame the Royal Greenwich Observatory as an imperial artefact, in the sense that its contributions to the empire through science, the definition of it as the Prime Meridian in 1884, and its later function as museum, have all configured it as a symbol of the centrality of London and a carrier of meanings attached to the empire. First, I argued that the RGO first gained its cultural significance by contributing to the cause of the empire since its foundation in 1675. This was strengthened by the establishment of the Prime Meridian, which put London as the “geographical center of the Earth” and the “origin of time”. Another relevant cultural implication is that the RGO was a stronghold of science, a distinctively European practice that contributed and reproduced the separation between the empire and periphery. In terms of Mitchell (2000), I interpreted scientific production as a form of cultural production in the sense that it was produced by a certain group of people who agreed to organize the world in their own terms, following the interest of the empire, who had the power to make these meanings persist.

Secondly, I considered the establishment of Greenwich as the standard hour in Victorian London. The evidence showed that it was not a process that occurred swiftly or that became established just because the scientists or the diplomats agreed on that, but that it was product of the active engagement of the government and private actors of society who viewed an economic or social benefit in standardizing time. Eventually, this standardization lead to major cultural changes in society that happened through the reification of time in the present, which hides the struggles behind it. Finally, I studied the transition of the RGO from observatory to museum and disclosed how the accumulated cultural value from the time the Prime Meridian was established functioned as an input for the new cultural value of the place, which is enhanced by its status of museum. The fact that this place is still visited by tourists as a sort of pilgrimage to the origin of time suggests that the centrality of London that was pursued since the origin of the RGO still persists and that this image is also key for the creation of economic value of the museum.

What this imperial artefact shows is the unavoidable interrelation between the empire construction in the past, the variety of forms in which meanings were developed ‒one of which was science‒ and the underlying role played by the economy in the particular case of London. But this case also gives insight into the rebellions behind the established meanings and way in which places can be recipients of different and contesting meanings depending on the forces acting on them and on the personal experiences of people with them.


Barrows, A. 2010. “’The Shortcomings of Timetables’: Greenwich, Modernism, and the Limits of Modernity”. Modern Fiction Studies, 56(2), pp. 262-289.

Dolan, G., Higgit, R. 2009. “Greenwich, time and ‘the line’”. Endeavour, 34(1), pp. 35-39. Driver, F., Gilbert, D. 2000. “Capital and Empire: geographies of imperial London”.

GeoJournal, 59, pp.23-32
Driver, F., Gilbert, D. 1998. “Heart of Empire? Landscape, space and performance in imperial

London”. Environment and planning D: Society and Space, 16, pp. 11-28. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2016. Royal Greenwich Observatory. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Dec. 2016]. McAleer, J. 2013. “‘Stargazers at the world’s end’: telescopes, observatories and ‘views’ of

empire in the nineteenth-century British Empire”. BJHS, 46(3), pp. 389-413.
Mitchell, D. 2000. Cultural geography: a critical introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Nye, J. Rooney, D. 2009. “‘Greenwich Observatory Time for the public benefit’ : standard time and Victorian networks of regulation”. BJHS, 42(1), pp. 5-30.

Royal Museums Greenwich. 2016. Astronomers and the anarchist bomber. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Dec. 2016].

Royal Museums Greenwich. 2016. Stand on the world’s historic Prime Meridian. [online] Available at: prime-meridian [Accessed 6 Dec. 2016].

Smith, R. 1991. “A National Observatory Transformed: Greenwich in the Nineteenth Century”. JHA, XXII, pp. 5-20.

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