AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIV, No. 1 Spring 2002


History of Observational Cosmology Exhibit Opens at National Air and Space Museum
by David DeVorkin, National Air and Space Museum

Newtonian mirror cage at the National Air and Space Museum
Diorama housing the original Newtonian mirror cage from the 100-inch Mount Wilson reflector, on loan from the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Edwin Hubble is at the Newtonian focus. Eric Long photograph, National Air and Space Museum. Click on photo to see a larger version.

A major new gallery on modern observational cosmology opened at the National Air and Space Museum on September 21, 2001. All opening events and the usual pomp and circumstance were cancelled due to the events of September 11. But what is now in place as a permanent exhibition (to stand for a decade or more) marks a watershed moment in the museum world: we have gathered together in one place, for the first time ever, significant portions of the original instrumentation that was used to revolutionize our conception of the universe not once, not twice, not three, but at least four times. Another way to say it is that we have collected together in one room important parts of three of the four most significant astronomical telescopes in all history.

Much planning and debate underlay the process of deciding what we wanted visitors to see and read. A few museum staffers started talking about a new gallery on astronomy in 1988, just as Martin Harwit became installed as Director of the museum. The gallery then in place, "Stars," opened in 1983. Although I had curated that one, it still left much to be desired in my mind, as well as for Harwit and our new exhibits chief, Nadya Makovenyi. Of course, we all envisioned different connects, as did the additional people brought into the project. Since 1988, at least three curatorial historians, four directors, six staff astronomers, two designers, a planetarium director, assorted educators, and about a dozen outside advisors debated. Hirings, firings, angioplasties, pregnancies, deaths, and countless other events tested our will.

Eventually a coalition emerged between the designer (Beatrice Mowry), scriptor (David Romanowski) and one of the surviving curators (David DeVorkin), who formed a nuclear core that could not be torn apart. Coalition building within an ever-enlarging sphere of the museum staff (development, public affairs, administration), as well as sympathetic resources in the Smithsonian's Institutional Studies Division and in its Central Services' Office of Exhibits Central, resulted in a curatorial package that was presented formally in the mid-1990s for internal review. Once approvedand re-approved by succeeding directorsthis package became the basis for fund raising, a step that had not been necessary in the early 1980s when "Stars" was built.

Contrary to (but not contradictory to) the experiences associated with exhibitions on the Washington Mall, we managed to create a patron base that was balanced enough so that most identifiable special interests were aired, evaluated and prioritized. Having both NASA and NSF as major sponsors helped to ensure a balance between ground-based and space-based astronomy, and in fact helped encourage a positive vision of a symbiotic, or better yet, synergistic relationshipwhich in fact, does exist. We then targeted those industries that we knew were directly interested in major elements of the story we had already crafted. Corning came through (telescope mirrors), as did TRW (Chandra and X-ray astronomy) and Kodak (the Hubble Space Telescope back-up mirror). Analytical Graphics was a perfect partner to explore orbital imagery simulations that would show our visitors how various satellite observatories work and what they look at. All patrons shared one goal: to improve educational outreach for astronomy. In order to do that, we incorporated a program of formal evaluations of the script, artifact and interactive displays.

18.5-inch speculum metal mirror
Soon after the original Herschel 20-foot tube arrived at the National Air and Space Museum on loan from the National Maritime Museum, staff photographer Eric Long took a series of documentation photographs. For this one, curators placed the original 18.5-inch speculum metal mirror at the base of the tube, kept the access door open for illumination, and Eric photographed what an observer would see from the top end of the tube in "daylight," from what has become known as the Herschelian focus. Eric Long photograph, National Air and Space Museum. Click on photo to see a larger version.

Throughout the entire process, everyone bought into one basic fact: to do something right at the Smithsonian, one needs to assess strengths and deal from those strengths. The National Air and Space Museum has the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of scientific instruments for observing the universe from space, and the Smithsonian generally has one of the broadest, if not the most extensive, collection of historical astronomical hardware anywhere on Earth. Approximately one-sixth of the artifacts in the space collection itself are now displayed in the "Explore the Universe" exhibit. Additionally, the original 18th century Herschel 20-foot tube and the original 100-inch Newtonian Cage used by Edwin Hubble at Mount Wilsonparts of two of the most important telescopes in historywere generously loaned to the museum for the exhibition, as was an original Huygens-era aerial telescope lens dating from the 1660s. These artifacts have been arranged by the simple but powerful theme: that as new tools were developed to observe the universe, our conception of the universe changed in profound ways. This became our basic organizing principle.

The first section, "Exploring the Universe with the Naked Eye," features visual instrumentation from an 11th century astrolabe to a full-scale replica of Tycho Brahe's ornate 16th century equatorial armillary sphere, arrayed around images of the geocentric universe. The next section, "Exploring the Universe with the Telescope" illustrates how the telescope revolutionized the way we see the universe. Featured artifacts include an interactive Galilean telescope to demonstrate how difficult it was to use such devices. William Herschel's original wooden 20-foot telescope tube concludes the section, illustrating how he observed to the end of the sidereal universe and then asked: what lies beyond? The third section, "Exploring the Universe with Photography," centers on how Hubble answered Herschel's question over a century later, using the largest telescope in the world and the newly available technique of long-exposure photography.

The fourth section introduces the use of the spectroscope into astronomy, with Hubble's confirmation that we live in an expanding universe of galaxies. "Exploring the Universe with Spectroscopy" demonstrates how the study of light reveals the compositions of stars and galaxies and their motions. Featured artifacts include an 1894 Brashear spectrograph from the Lick Observatorythe prototype instrument for high-accuracy photographic observations of radial velocity (the speed of motion in the line of sight)as well as the original Prime Focus Spectrograph from the Hale telescope, an unbeatable combination of light-gathering power and sensitivity, which allowed Hubble's followers to revise and refine understanding of the rate of expansion of the universe.

The largest and final section, "Exploring the Universe in the Digital Age," showcases how the advanced digital equipment of today has enhanced the power of earlier tools to portray a vastly larger and more complex universe. Featured artifacts include detectors capable of sensing portions of the entire known electromagnetic spectrum, the flight-ready backup mirror to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and instruments removed from the HST during servicing by astronauts, as well as instruments from COBE and more.

Of special interest to readers of this Newsletter may be: George Gamow's YLEM bottle, Robert Dicke's CMBR radiometer, Victor Hess's cosmic-ray electrometer, Penzias and Wilson's pigeon trap, the image-tube spectrograph used by Vera Rubin and Kent Ford to detect dark matter, and an original photomultiplier element from Kamiokande in Japan that was part of the array that detected the first neutrino flux from a supernova (1987A). The message in this section is that the instruments, methods and techniques of physics are central to modern astronomical investigation. Many images in the gallery were obtained from the AIP.

The gallery also features more than two dozen interactive displays, including replicas of early astrolabes, quadrants, telescopes and telescopic optics; mechanical representations of orbits and galaxy motions; an infrared camera and monitor station; and several computer stations and video kiosks for expanded illustration of how the artifacts are used. The museum has produced three short videos for the gallery: the computer-animated adventures of "Priscilla the Proton," the artifact-appraising spoof "Museum Roadshow," and "Scott Hamilton Skates the Universe," in which the Olympic gold medalist and national champion zips through the cosmic rink to "Galaxy Song," from the Monty Python film "The Meaning of Life."

The "Explore the Universe" Web site ( offers an extensive virtual tour of the gallery, a detailed look at artifacts, and links to scientific and academic resources. The National Geographic Society has published a companion volume to the exhibition, titled Beyond Earth: Mapping the Universe. It is a set of essays by noted historians and scientists, ranging from Owen Gingerich, Vera Rubin and Margaret Geller to Dave Wilkinson, Tony Tyson and Bob Wilson, heavily illustrated with images from the exhibition.

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