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Moon Palace Observatory Bus Images © Charles Emerson
What's on
September 2023
Reading time 4 Minutes

Leeds locals are star struck by a new observatory on wheels which is totally out of this world

Living North learn more about Moon Palace as it tours the city.

Moon Palace is one of many exciting creations for the Leeds 2023 celebrations. ‘Leeds 2023 is a year-long programme of arts and culture taking place throughout the city,’ says Kat Boon, one of the producers who’s leading on this project. ‘Our motto is to “let culture loose” so we’re celebrating all the ways in which we express culture. That could be the obvious ways (through art, exhibitions and group performance) but also through community, food and music – everything that brings us together. We had an incredible opening event in January (The Awakening) and since then we’ve displayed huge outdoor installations, and we also ran a great project called My Leeds 2023 which involved working with each ward of Leeds to create their own community event throughout the summer. All these things have worked together to celebrate Leeds and the community here.’

A new commission from leading artists Heather Peak and Ivan Morison, Moon Palace is now on a four-month tour of the city, and the beginning of its tour kickstarted Smeaton300 – a programme of events by creative duo Foxglove that celebrate the life, legacy and influences of John Smeaton – the man who coined the phrase Civil Engineering. He was born in east Leeds in the 1700s and his inventions had a huge impact. He built harbours, bridges and the modern lighthouse, and he’s even known for stopping London Bridge from falling down. ‘He was really interesting because he was quite a modest character, but described himself as both an artist and a modern scientist,’ says Kat. ‘It’s also the idea that his work was for the public good – how he could make the world better for people to live in.

Moon Palace wooden interiors from Studio Morison's forest and upcycled bus seats (c) Charles Emerson

'These ideas are at the heart of the Moon Palace commission. The idea of Moon Palace came from the East Leeds Project, a visual arts company, and they were really inspired by how they could work to change people’s perception of east Leeds, and by how big the skies are over that part of the city. They put these ideas together to create a mobile observatory to travel around the city inspiring people to observe both the skies and the world around them. Moon Palace is both a mobile observatory and an artwork – bringing art and science together and inviting visitors into this beautiful, quite otherworldly, space to experience this with their community.’

Formerly a school bus, Moon Palace has been designed to spark visitors’ curiosity with a fusion of art and science, with plenty of support and expertise from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leeds, and Leeds Astronomical Society. ‘When you see it, you’re struck by how beautiful it is,’ says Kat. ‘The exterior is inspired by fantastical universes and strange planets (hand airbrushed with paint [by artist Kiaran Davies]). Inside there’s a beautiful space which is all wood panelled with timber from Peak and Morison’s forest in west Wales. It’s been converted to include comfy seats where you can sit and enjoy a special blend of tea made just for Moon Palace, read a book, and observe the world around you.

‘On board we have an optical telescope which is the centrepiece when you walk in. Above that is a large dome that we’ve had made and at night you can use the telescope to observe the stars when it’s clear. We also have a radio telescope. On top of the bus is a huge satellite dish that’s used to collect radio signals from celestial objects and on board our scientists will work to convert them so you can view the radio signals, as well as listening to their sound. We have binoculars and books and guests are invited to sit, contemplate, and note down what they see,’ adds Kat. A sonic soundscape will also be created during the tour by sonic artist and researcher Alex de Little.

Kat hopes Moon Palace will allow visitors the chance to move at a different pace, and offer them the time and space to look at things differently. ‘I guess it’s that childhood playfulness and curiosity that we often lose the older we get,’ she explains. ‘We’re already seeing how much this is sparking people’s child-like enthusiasm. A lot of that is thanks to conversations about space and our on-board scientists inviting people to chat, and to observe the sky. There have been great conversations about our relationships with space but there’s the chance to learn more too. At one point one of our scientists was telling visitors the difference between a star and a planet and how you can work out which is which. Even simple things like that aren’t something you’d think about if you haven’t studied space since school. It’s really re-engaging people with these things that they might not have thought about for a while.

‘We’ve also started running our After Dark sessions. During the day we have solar telescopes and on a clear day people can observe the sun which is pretty incredible. At night time we have smaller groups come on board and we work with Leeds Astronomical Society. We’ve also been running traditional observing sessions using the telescopes. We went to Seacroft recently and there just happened to be a meteor shower that night so we saw some shooting stars and we got to observe Jupiter and Saturn through the telescopes – for the group of families with us it was the first time they’d looked through a telescope like this and therefore their first time seeing these planets. It was such an astonishing moment, and offering children the chance to be able to see that is just incredible.’

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As it tours the city, part of the magic is the peculiarity of seeing Moon Palace appearing in your neighbourhood, and visitors of all ages are welcome. ‘One really lovely example was at the weekend when we had a little boy who came along with his family for the late night session,’ Kat says. ‘He adored it and he was keen to tell us about his favourite planet. It was quite a late session so by the end of it he’d fallen asleep on the cosy seats in Moon Palace. Earlier in the day, we’d had an older gentleman in his 80s who’d travelled across the city to see Moon Palace and he sat with us for an hour reading a book about space. There are so many ways of accessing it but it really puts everyone on the same level.’

There’s already plenty of interest, understandably, from people who’d love to have Moon Palace once Leeds 2023 comes to a close. ‘We hope it will continue touring in some way, and continue to be cherished in Leeds,’ Kat adds.

Moon Palace is made possible by Leeds 2023, Leeds City Council, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England, Bruntwood, Burberry, Scottish Power Foundation and First Bus. Find out more at

The Moon Palace Tour

Saturday 9th September

Victoria Square LS1 3AA (free entry, drop in)

Saturday 9th September (After Dark)

Victoria Square LS1 3AA (tickets required)

Saturday 30th September

White Rose Shopping Centre LS11 8LU (free entry, drop in)

Saturday 21st October (Orionid Meteor Shower Gazing)

Potternewton Park LS7 4HA (free entry, drop in)

Sunday 22nd October

Royal Armouries LS10 1LT (tickets required)

Tuesday 24th October

Leeds Society for Deaf and Blind People LS9 7DP (tickets required)

Saturday 28th October

Whinmoor Library LS14 2DF (free entry, drop in)

Tuesday 21st November

University of Leeds LS2 9JT (free entry, drop in)

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