Umbrella’s future written in the stars

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    Southland Astronomical Society members (from left) sculptor and society co-founder Russell Beck, treasurer Bob Evans, Anton Dickens, president Phil Burt and Pru Field under the Don St umbrella sculpture. Photo: Hayden Williams

    DEBATE is unfolding on the fate of the Don St umbrella sculpture, but the giant brolly looks set to stay put.

    The debate follows the Invercargill Licensing Trust’s April announcement of plans to build a multi-story hotel on the corner of Don and Dee Sts.

    Don St is currently a one-way street, with the sculpture, Our People – Time and Place, positioned at a bottleneck.

    People have questioned how access for tourist coaches will be achieved should the umbrella stay where it is.

    However, Invercargill City Council’s works and services roading manager Russell Pearson said no clear plans for the umbrella had yet emerged.

    “We need to work through all these things, but the umbrella is part of Invercargill’s heritage so we’d want to keep it where it is,” he said.

    Southland Astronomical Society members say the sculpture wouldn’t be easy to shift somewhere else.

    The sculpture’s creator, Russell Beck, said the umbrella was both a sundial and a star map aligned with the southern celestial pole.

    Working out the calculations for the sculpture’s alignment had not been easy and to do the calculations again for a different location would be challenging, although “nothing’s impossible”, he said.

    Installing the 5.2m-diameter stainless steel umbrella had also been challenging.

    Before the year 2000 summer solstice Invercargill had enjoyed fine weather, but on the morning of the umbrella’s installation there was “horizontal hail”, Mr Beck said.

    “You know what happens to an umbrella in the wind… Invercargill’s weather had the last say.”

    The sculpture wasn’t simply a reference to Invercargill’s inclement weather, however. It also symbolically protected the people of Invercargill whose surnames as of the 2013 census were etched in the bricks beneath.

    Mr Beck said the sculpture’s function as a sundial also commemorated the life’s work of Invercargill sundial maker James Stewart, who is credited with making about 200 sundials installed in towns and cities throughout New Zealand.

    The umbrella’s canopy shows a map of stars visible throughout the year in Invercargill, and the umbrella’s handle, which is shaped like a Maori spiral or koru, is also a nod to Murihiku Maori who studied the stars more than 800 years ago.

    Mr Beck is a founding member of the Southland Astronomical Society and his sculptures can be found in towns and cities throughout New Zealand.

    His son, Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck, is also renowned for his passion for astronomy.

    The billion-dollar company will make space history should it become the first private outfit to launch a rocket to orbit 300km above the earth’s surface.

    Southland Astronomical Society committee member Pru Field said with a resurgence in public interest around astronomy, the society was happy to have people look at the planets and circumpolar stars using the new “go-to” telescope at the observatory.

    Public viewing nights are held on Wednesday nights (weather permitting), 7pm-9pm, for a gold coin donation, until daylight savings starts in September.

    The observatory is on the western side of the Southland Museum & Gallery at 108 Gala St.

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