Burns&Beyond goes celestial: 'The Moon is our bit of backyard astronomy'

Burns&Beyond's celestial journey: 'The Moon is our bit of backyard astronomy'

Museum of the Moon at the University of Bristol / credit: Carolyn Eaton

We speak to those participating in St Giles' Cathedral's programme of events where a massive Moon acts as a dramatic support act

A true global phenomenon, Luke Jerram's Museum of the Moon is set to light up St Giles' Cathedral as part of Edinburgh's Burns&Beyond celebrations. To date, it has been displayed in the likes of Liverpool Cathedral, at the Australian Commonwealth Games and at Cork's Midsummer Festival, as well as in Beijing, Bilbao and Blackpool. This spectacular ball, which measures seven metres in diameter and comprises detailed NASA imagery of the lunar surface, arrives on the Royal Mile to be peered at as a dramatic exhibit in its own right as well as providing a backdrop to Burns&Beyond events in the cathedral.

One such event is a Moon Talk (22 January) led by William Taylor, Alastair Bruce and Martin Black, a trio from the city's Royal Observatory. Featuring audio from astronauts who have journeyed there, and a chat about some Moon basics (its colours, sizes, distances and tidal effects), the talk will reflect on the past, present and future of lunar exploration. Through the recent Chang'e 4 mission, Chinese astronauts became the first to explore the Moon's far side (where they planted some cotton sprouts), putting the subject of humans once again walking on the Moon back in the limelight.

'Having Chinese astronauts walking on the Moon in ten years or so might stir other governments into more spending and we might have a more Space Race-esque thing again,' notes Taylor. 'In some ways it shouldn't be competitive, it should be collaborative, but the reason we haven't been back is purely financial. NASA spent 5% of the GDP to get to the Moon in the 60s and because they're now spending a tiny fraction of that, they haven't returned. Whenever people talk about going to the Moon you can always add a few more years onto it. Elon Musk says he's going to send somebody round it in two years' time, but he hasn't even built a rocket for it yet.'

Whatever humanity's future relationship with the Moon happens to be, that object in the sky will always have an ongoing, mythical fascination for us. 'It's the only bit of nearby space that we can see' states Taylor. 'We always see these glorious images from the Hubble space telescope and this type of thing and it would be amazing to go and see them but you can't. But the Moon is just there: it's the one astronomical object that we can see details of with our own eyes, let alone getting binoculars or a telescope on it. It's our bit of backyard astronomy, and there's nothing else like that. The sun is there and obviously it's very important, but we can't look at that in the same detail.'

The St Giles Cathedral programme in Burns&Beyond isn't just about the joys of staring into space. There are some top-notch gigs going on with the Moon acting as a powerful slice of set design. Rachel Sermanni will do her folk-noir balladeering thing on 23 January, while The St Giles' Choir sings its collective heart out the following evening. And on Burns Night itself, Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble plays a solo gig, albeit with two musicians by his side.

Despite the setting, he isn't tempted to perform a stripped-back version of 'Jupiter', a bouncing track on his latest solo record, The Deluder, but he will be putting together a show that he hopes will mark the day of our national poet with a bang.

'I will acknowledge it because it's pretty interesting and unusual that Scotland has a day when we celebrate a poet and have a national day of poetry,' notes Woomble. 'Like most people I was introduced to him at school, and to begin with I had the reaction that a lot of people have that, well, this is rubbish. But as an adult, you come round to it. I'm a big fan of William Blake, and Burns is the same era as him; during the Scottish Enlightenment, all these poets were exploring these ideas which was a radical thing at the time, so as an adult I became a fan. And as a songwriter, he's really interesting. 'Auld Lang Syne' is quite simply one of the best songs ever written.'

Burns&Beyond, various venues, Edinburgh, Tue 22–Sun 27 Jan.

Burns&Beyond

A new festival celebrating Scottish culture and the legacy of Robert Burns, Burns&Beyond features 'Museum of the Moon' by British artist Luke Jerram which will be housed at St Giles' Cathedral. The 2019 programme also includes the flagship Culture Trail, the Lost Map's Howlin' Fling!, and The List's The Red Rose Club.

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