Sydney Observatory is a working museum located on Observatory Hill in the heart of Sydney Harbour, operated by The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS).
Built between 1857 and 1859, it’s a heritage-listed meteorological station, astronomical observatory, function venue and science museum. Visitors to the observatory can look through the same telescopes as Victorian scientists once did, marvel the solar system and learn about cosmology through guided and unguided tours.
The problem the observatory faced was that although there was a primed audience, interested in science, people didn’t know it existed or how to get there.
We were asked to create a campaign to rekindle interest in the observatory and capture the imagination of Sydney residents and tourists to drive more visitors.
This work was part of a speculative pitch that we won but unfortunately was not ultimately commissioned, but I thought it was worth sharing.
The Victorian age of discovery
The observatory was built during a marvelous period of scientific discovery – the Victorian era. Darwin discovered evolution by natural selection, Faraday made breakthroughs with electromagnetic induction and Maxwell realised electricity, magnetism, and light were manifestations of the same phenomenon.
The romance of science
In the same era, Jules Verne captured the imaginations of children and adults alike with adventure stories of journeys to the centre of the earth, voyages to the moon and expeditions to the bottom of the sea. This was a period where science was romantic, escapist and captivating.
The poetry of science
Carl Sagan was an astronomer, a cosmologist and a poet. In his television series, Cosmos, he enthralled audiences to the majesty of the universe with his poetic monologues that painted cosmology like no-one had done before. Today, scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox take a similar approach to inspire the masses about science and the universe.
The Place on a Hill
To capture the the observatory’s magical history, I wrote a poem intended to capture the romance of cosmology called The Place on a Hill.
The idea was to paint the observatory as a magical place where you can discover the universe’s secrets and ignite people’s imaginations.
There’s a place on a hill.
On a rock in the dark.
With an eye to the sky
And a foot in a park
A place with a view
that's seen pretty much all
Stars being born
Where space and time
Where the universe tells its story
to curious minds
A place of breathtaking beauty
and unspeakable violence
in the vacuum of space;
In unbreakable silence.
Where stars are born
And worlds are shattered
And starstuff scattered
Where well traveled photons
from far away blasts
Find curious eyes
through a lens on the past
Where masters of science
Have seen further than others
Stood on shoulders of giants
Where those who see beauty
in the seemingly mundane
Look up to the heavens
to fall in love, all over again
Where inquisitive souls
Marvel the skies
Where seeing is believing
Only with your own eyes.
There’s a place in the cosmos
With more questions that answers
Where time stands still
In a place, on a hill.
The poem became the backbone to the brand voice. We took lines from it and wrote new ones to create a series of posters featuring the planets.
The visuals, inspired by the magical aesthetic of Tim Burton, were designed to spark the imagination and show how the observatory brings the solar system closer in a way that’s reminiscent of the Victorian age of discovery.
We also imagined activities the observatory could offer to activate the surrounding grounds including picnics, yoga, outdoor cinema and lectures – all beneath the stars and coordinated to what’s visible in the night sky. These would be promoted through social media and free postcards in relevant outlets, such as local cafes.
The website was conceived around a timeline where users could plan their tour of the cosmos around what the night sky has to offer on a particular date. Choosing a date would change the image according to what would be visible that night.
Guided audio tours
To enhance the self-guided experience we envisioned different audio tours, voiced by popular celebrity scientists, through a free app. Different personalities would give different experiences to encourage visitors to come again and again.
We also conceived new products that the observatory could sell including a virtual planetarium, using Google Cardboard, to explore the cosmos through 360 video.