Moon Palace mobile observatory starts its tour at Armouries

Dazzling new artwork that is a mobile observatory takes LEEDS 2023 to the stars and back: Heather Peak and Ivan Morison’s ‘Moon Palace’ embarks on an epic tour of the city, inspired by Leeds-born, Father of Civil Engineering, John Smeaton

A new commission from leading artists Heather Peak and Ivan Morison starts a four month tour of Leeds at the Royal Armouries in Hunslet this weekend (5-6 August 2023), as part of the LEEDS 2023 Year of Culture celebrations. 

‘Moon Palace’ is both a striking social sculpture and accessible mobile observatory, based on an original idea by East Leeds Project and inspired by the legacy of John Smeaton, and the observatory he had in East Leeds. Each element of the interior and exterior of ‘Moon Palace’, formerly a school bus, has been designed to spark audiences’ curiosity and stimulate their observational skills with a collision of creativity, art and science, inspiring visitors to look afresh at the world around them.

‘Moon Palace’ and its tour also kickstarts Smeaton300, a programme of events by creative duo Foxglove that celebrate the life, legacy and influences of the man who coined the phrase Civil Engineering, John Smeaton, up to his 300th birthday in 2024. An East Leeds Project and LEEDS 2023 co-production, ‘Moon Palace’ has been commissioned by Foxglove and LEEDS 2023 for Smeaton300 and supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The work of collaborative artists Peak and Morison transcends divisions between art, architecture, theatre and activism. Together with East Leeds Project, Peak and Morison have assembled a team of artists and scientists to create ‘Moon Palace’, with support and expertise from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leeds and Leeds Astronomical Society. ‘Moon Palace’ will make an eye-catching arrival as it tours the city, with a dazzling exterior hand-airbrushed by artist Kiaran Davies and a sonic soundscape that will be created during the tour by Alex de Little.

Its interior is a fantastical, multi-sensory, tactile space evoking the surface of an imaginary planet, including: wood panelling using timber from Peak and Morison’s forest in west Wales; upcycled bus seating; printed silk screens; porcelain lunar lampshades; alien-looking mugs and a sculptural teapot will be put to use in the ‘kitchen zone’.

One huge and one small dome on the roof make way for a powerful telescope and a radio dish to enable ‘Moon Palace’ to function as an astronomical observatory. Audiences will be able to view the galaxy on a clear night and use the radio telescope built by students and staff from the School of Physics and Astronomy which will look at signals comings from different celestial objects from across the Universe.

Starting in East Leeds where life-long astronomer John Smeaton made the observations that continue to shape today’s world, including the oak trees that informed the design of the Eddystone Lighthouse, artists and scientists will lead audiences through daytime drop-in sessions and night-time galaxy-gazing events.

Ivan Morison said:

“With ‘Moon Palace’ we’re trying to reframe people’s experiences of the world around them. When we make new connections, we gain new understandings of the places we live and people we live alongside, as well. That’s how we interpreted Smeaton’s ‘observatory’: we wanted to create a space where people could look at the stars and be amazed at the wonder of the universe, but you could also look very closely at the place they live.”

Heather Peak said:

“Its’s an artwork that does all sorts of things, under the title of being an observatory. There are lots of moments that enable people to connect with ‘Moon Palace’ in lots of different ways. Some people are more visual, some people are more sonic, some people can appreciate things through touch. So, we’re trying to find all these different ways of creating different experiences for the audience.”

Kully Thiarai, Creative Director of LEEDS 2023 said:

“Throughout LEEDS 2023 we have committed to revealing the hidden stories and heritage of our great city. We, therefore, could not let the phenomenal story and legacy of John Smeaton pass us by. While the Kaiser Chiefs make reference to John Smeaton in their famous anthem, ‘I Predict A Riot’, many people are unfamiliar with his ground-breaking creativity and the huge impact this East Leeds lad has had on the world. We are delighted to be able to showcase and celebrate his diverse range of his skills, thinking and pioneering practice, in the build-up through to Smeaton 300 next year. Spanning the worlds of science, technology, engineering, arts and maths, Smeaton was a true polymath and used creativity to solve some of the biggest challenges of the day for the public good. We hope that by sharing his story we can inspire others to go and reach for the stars!”

Helen Featherstone, Director, England, North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund said:

“It is incredibly exciting to see the city’s industrial heritage and the work of Leeds-born trailblazer John Smeaton, celebrated with the launch of the ‘Moon Palace’ that will offer a glimpse into the amazing night sky. Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, we’re able to support the creative and varied programme of Smeaton300 that will give local people the opportunity to learn more about his influence across the world and help to truly inspire the next generation of engineers.”

Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader and executive member for economy, culture and education, said:

“Over the course of this year, we’ve already seen how LEEDS2023 has transformed the perception of culture in Leeds and made us think and feel differently about the city we know.

“It’s incredible to now see an event literally encouraging the people of Leeds to reach for the stars as we celebrate the story of one of the city’s most influential scientific pioneers.

“I’ve no doubt this experience will capture imaginations across the city and that Smeaton’s remarkable legacy will continue to inspire people to see and interact with the world around them in new and creative ways.”

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.

‘MOON PALACE’ TOUR: August to November 2023

Saturday 5 August | Royal Armouries LS10 1LT | 12-6pm | Free entry, drop in.

Sunday 6 August | Royal Armouries LS10 1LT | First session: 10-11:30pm, Second session: 12-1:30am | Tickets required.

Saturday 30 September | White Rose Shopping Centre LS11 8LU |11am-5pm | Free entry, drop in.

Sunday 22 October | Royal Armouries LS10 1LT | First session: 7:30-9pm (Relaxed), Second session: 9:30-11pm | Tickets required.

‘Moon Palace’ will also be visiting other Leeds wards. Keep an eye on where more dates will be added.


This post is based on a press releaser issued on behalf of LEEDS 2023

Photo: JMA Photography


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2 Replies to “Moon Palace mobile observatory starts its tour at Armouries”

    1. Hi Ros, I don’t think it’s anywhere on Thursday. It’s next appearance seems to be at Seactoft Festival next Saturday (12 August). You can find more information at

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