University of Edinburgh: Exhibition charts expedition which mapped world’s oceans

Sea Change, curated by the University’s Centre for Research Collections, details the fascinating journey of HMS Challenger, which undertook a four-year voyage in 1872 to uncover the mysteries of the world’s seas and oceans.

The exhibition has been opened to coincide with the conclusion of the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, where the challenges currently faced by marine environments have been discussed.

The data gathered during the HMS Challenger’s expedition set the baseline for our modern-day understanding of the health of our planet’s oceans. Challenger laid the foundations of modern oceanography and deep-sea biology and set the course for the international interdisciplinary ocean research we need to understand the role of the ocean in Earth’s climate and create the evidence needed to make our use of the oceans sustainable for future generations.

Professor Murray Roberts
Chair in Applied Marine Biology and Ecology, School of Geosciences,
Voyage of discovery
During an epic circumnavigation of the globe, between 1872 and 1876, the crew of HMS Challenger collected data and specimens to help us understand the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the deep sea.

Published over a period of 20 years, from the expedition’s offices in Edinburgh, the resulting Challenger Report would become the first detailed record of our oceans, providing baseline data for the effects of climate change on our oceans today.

The expedition was the brainchild of Charles Wyville Thomson, Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh and William B Carpenter, Registrar of London University and vice-president of the Royal Society. They successfully persuaded the Royal Society of London to ask the British Government to supply a ship for a prolonged voyage of exploration.

Edinburgh student John Murray took over from Thomson as director of the Challenger Office in Edinburgh when Thomson died. Murray is credited with coining the term ‘oceanography’ and is regarded as the father of the discipline. Murray described the 50 volume Challenger Report as “the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries”.

Fascinating insight
The Sea Change exhibition brings together a wealth of information from the University’s cultural heritage collections and is the first University exhibition to feature digital loans, from the National Museum of Scotland. These includes rare photographs and illustrations of sounding machines used by those aboard the ship.

The exhibition’s narrative – based on original research by Dr Erika Lynn Jones from the Royal Museums Greenwich – also explores how HMS Challenger was modified for the expedition, detailing how cannons and internal spars were removed to provide additional space for laboratories and a special dredging platform.

Wider context
In additions to details of the modifications made to HMS Challenger that enabled her to probe the oceans’ depths, wider social and global changes are also detailed in the exhibition.

These include scientific instruments from National Museums Scotland and Kirkwood’s plan and elevation of Edinburgh’s New Town, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

“This exhibition is the third to launch on the Centre for Research Collections’ new online exhibition platform. This new exhibition brings together a superb collection of objects and details from the voyage which bring to life the achievements of what was a truly pioneering endeavour. We are proud to have the University’s HMS Challenger Papers displayed alongside the National Museum of Scotland’s oceanographic collections. While the expedition prioritises innovation, it also puts the expedition and the work of the 19th-century Royal Navy in a larger colonial context.

Bianca Packham
Sea Change curator and Engagement Officer
The University at COP26
The University of Edinburgh has contributed to COP26 in four main ways: by presenting research; through advocacy; by observing negotiations, and by analysing the discussions for various audiences.

University of Edinburgh researchers have played a pivotal role in informing global climate change mitigation policy for nearly two decades. Among the first to unequivocally demonstrate the link between human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, their research formed the scientific foundation of the Paris Agreement.

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