We made it! Please join us for this historical opening of our historical exhibit! We’ll be at the Van Vleck Observatory library all day today; the exhibit is open from 10am-6pm. Hope to see you soon!
Today is Friday, April 29, 1016. The Under Connecticut Skies exhibit formally opens Friday, May 6, 2016, exactly one week from now. That can only mean one thing: it’s crunch-time. Saying that there was a lot going on in the Observatory from the hours of 9am-7pm today would be an understatement.
To even properly explain what went on in the Observatory today, I need to tell you a bit of what went on yesterday. Essentially, Matt and I cut a lot of muslin. The cabinet shelves (which will hold all of the exhibit objects) will be covered in muslin to protect the wood and lighten up the exhibit aesthetics. So each cabinet needs a piece of muslin cut-to-size. Matt trimmed the fabric, which came in giant sprawling unwieldy sheets, for a couple of hours and then I took over and finished cutting 29 pieces of muslin for 29 similarly-sized shelves.
Fast-forward 24 hours: I arrive at the Van Vleck Observatory around 10:30am and get to work ironing. Before all the muslin can be placed in the shelves, all the creases need to be tamed, and so I spent hours–literally hours–ironing. Believe it or not, muslin is a very crinkly fabric, so we were mostly concerned with ironing out the giant creases from having folded it all up the day before. When I left to get some lunch, Roy asked me to label everything with great detail so that if someone else came in–also to iron for hours–they would know where to start. I completed this task with great pleasure.
When I came back to the observatory a couple hours later, I found Roy, Paul, and Linda huddled around a table in the hallway with a giant piece of paper. When they saw me come in, I was immediately greeted with exchanges of “Abby! You’re back!” and “Do you know how to use an Exact-o knife?”
“Yes, yes, yes! I have used an Exact-o knife many-a-times,” I replied.
“Awesome, now can you help Linda with this?”
“Yeah, sure! But what is ‘this’?”
I feel like that could be the motto of museums everywhere: “yeah, sure, but what is ‘this’?”
Anyway, I helped Linda with cutting the paper because I’m quite comfortable with Exact-o knives. One time in high school, I accidentally cut myself really badly with an Exact-o knife, and ever since, I practice the utmost in Exact-o knife safety. I’m weirdly proud of this. While I was cutting the paper, sometimes I was pressing the blade so close to the ruler, that I actually started peeling wood off of it! In any event, we cut some paper to a certain size and then filed into the library.
Turns out that the paper we were cutting was going behind the glass plates with astronomical images in order to minimize shadowing. While trying to stick the paper to the back of the cabinets with double-sided tape, I heard Linda use all kinds of expletives like “this horse’s patootie.” She also repeatedly asked me, “Aren’t you glad I got you out of ironing?” to which I repeatedly emphatically replied, “Yes, yes, yes.”
Meanwhile, Paul was working diligently on quite a few other essential tasks.
Sometime in the afternoon, astronomy students that had been working in the observatory knocked on the library door and offered to give a hand. I delegated the task of ironing to the one person who said he had “ironed at one point in [his] life”: Julian. Later Girish relieved Julian of ironing-duties, mercilessly teasing the retired player. Apparently not many Wesleyan students know how to iron, so we were lucky to find two people who kinda did.
Julian was then faced with task of hauling many many boxes of very very old books out of the Van Vleck office and into the library. Roy has been saying for months now that we have a ton of books ready to be sorted and go on the shelves. The books come from the Exley Science Library, and although they will be resting on the Van Vleck library’s shelves from now on, the books can still be found in the Wesleyan catalog. A bit of a conveyor belt-system while moving books around formed.
While the team of astronomers–AKA the greatest volunteer help we could’ve ever asked for–was working on moving books around and sorting the “new” ones, I helped Roy finish up the interior light fixtures. That mostly involved tightening a few screws, laying down velcro on the undersides of the shelves, and applying velcro to the light fixtures themselves so that they could be attached to the undersides of the cabinet shelves. In a couple of hours, all of the exhibit lighting fixtures were complete and installed!
By the time all the light fixtures were done, some of our helpers had to say goodbye for the day. So I took over repopulating the historic library shelves with historic books. I stood at the top of the library ladder as Kevin sorted books below. When he had a couple in the right order, he would hand them off to me.
When Kevin finished the last books in the box he was working on, we decided to call it a day. By that point, it was already 6:30 in the evening! Everyone was ready to leave. When I finally made my way home and had collapsed on my bed, I logged onto Twitter and saw all the pictures of the hard-work us student laborers had been up to (Roy had been tweeting throughout the day). It was a very sweet feeling, and I was so happy to have a chance to work with such lovely people for such an excellent project.
We’ve got one week to go! Come see the fruits of all our labors soon!
A lot of our exhibit artifacts, in a way, come straight from Wesleyan’s Special Collections and Archives. We’ll be displaying correspondences between the first Van Vleck Observatory Director, Frederick Slocum and the Observatory’s architect, Henry Bacon (correspondence pictured right), reproductions of many historic photographs, and even a commemorative plate with an etching of the historic observatory; we could not display any of these objects, of course, without the help and support of the Wesleyan SC&A.
Moreover, one of our tasks for the last several weeks of the project has been to perform a final sweep of the archives for relevant images, documents, and things of the sort. I posted earlier about our sweep through Wesleyan’s yearbooks, and now I’d like to share some more images that I happened upon most-recently.
I’ve been working with Melissa Sullivan at the Wesleyan New Media lab, trying to get some of our footage from the summer turned into to polished, comprehensible videos to go on this website soon, hopefully! (If you’re interested about our film shoots over the summer, you can check out this post, this post, or this post). I was looking specifically for pictures of the IBM card-reader in the the Exley basement, and so I asked Leith if he had seen anything of the sort. He said he hadn’t, but that I could take a look at the file for the original Exley computer room. I said “Ok, sure why not?” and scheduled an appointment for a couple days from that point.
Looking through the photographs of the Exley Computer Lab, I saw some crazy things. Computers as big as rooms! The original desk-sized computers, that were themselves desk-sized! Students and staff crunching numbers! And a random photograph of Frederick Slocum thrown into the mix?
I didn’t know quite what I was looking at or why there was an image of the Van Vleck Observatory’s very first director (long deceased by the time the Exley Science Tower was built) in a folder for the Exley Computer Room, so I snapped a bunch of photos and showed them to Roy at our Monday meeting the following week. Zooming in and rotating the photos a bit on my tiny cellphone screen, he mumbled, “This might be…well, this actually is the VVO basement.” And I kinda just stood there dumbfounded, like, “really?”
“Abby, these might the only photographs we have of the Van Vleck Observatory computing room [AKA the basement]. This is amazing.”
My rather lame response: “Ok, cool! I’m glad I looked in that folder then.”
That very Monday morning, Roy and Amrys were sending out a finalized list of images to get reproduced for the exhibit, and they wanted some of these new pictures. I emailed Leith and asked him to take high-quality scans of 6 of the images; in less than an hour he had written back to me, explaining the scans plus a few extra were uploaded to our shared folder. I forwarded the email to Roy and Amrys, and now several images of the original “computers” (i.e. those students and staff who did computations) are in our exhibit!
Although we cannot be certain of the dates of the photographs, Leith guesses they’re mostly from the late 1960s. Check out some of the images below!
Wow, did we have fun.
Our history-themed kids’ night at the Van Vleck was a great success! Luckily for the historians in the bunch, no one really asked for explanations of cosmic rays or black holes, but Roy probably could’ve answered anyway. In any case, we had two activities planned, each demonstrating a different facet of the history of the Van Vleck Observatory. The first activity sought to teach about the teaching of astronomy over time and the second activity involved some mystical musical creations.
The first activity, which took place upstairs in the classroom, involved a history lesson on how astronomy lessons used to go. Roy brought out the lantern slide projector and explained that before the advent of photography, astronomers would take detailed sketches of their observations and use delicately-painted glass slides as teaching tools. Of course this meant hauling the Van Vleck’s very own lantern projector and slides out of their current resting place in the preliminary mock-up of the Under CT Skies exhibit in the library. And of course Roy gave a demonstration of the lantern slide, showing off cool plates, painted, photographed, and otherwise.
While showing some lantern slides with images of Mars, Roy touched on one rather silly chapter in history. Back in the late 19th century, after viewing some fuzzy images of the Red Planet and being victim to a miscommunication or two, one American astronomer theorized that Mars hosted an intelligent-life civilization that had built a complex network of water-carrying canals. The theory has since been decidedly debunked.
After Roy showed off some cool slides with the projector himself, we invited everyone to make their own old-timey astronomy teaching materials! We substituted glass plates for plastic transparencies and oil paints for sharpies. With the aid of a cranky overhead projector, and then the actual lantern projector itself (with transparencies cut-to-size), we displayed everyone’s work on the big screen.
Next activity: Down in the basement, Melissa and I (Abby) were stationed with another pack of sharpies, another bunch of transparencies–primed with blank musical staffs, a stack of star charts, and a portable mini-keyboard dating back to the 80’s that Amrys generously provided. After telling the story of John Cage at the Van Vleck, we invited everyone to channel their own experimental music composer.
The story goes that Cage, while a fellow at Wesleyan, wandered up one day to the Van Vleck Observatory and took out Atlas Eclipticalis from the library to use in one of his compositions. Essentially, his method was to draw musical staffs on tracing paper on top of the different star charts and wherever the stars fell on the staffs, a musical note was inferred. So, in the basement during Kids’ Night, we asked people to make their own musical compositions with the stars as a guide, and I would play the compositions when they were complete.
Each composition, all designed with great care by our tiny John Cages, were completely unique and completely compelling. The room would hush the second I started to play; everyone wanted to hear the kids’ handiwork and the universe’s musings! Some people included time and key signatures, others just drew lines “connecting the dots.” I tried to be as faithful to what was written as possible. I also really enjoyed the titles of many of the compositions, such as “Symphony of the Stars” and “Not my fault.”
All in all, history-themed Kids’ Night was a lot of fun! Hope you can make it to the next one!
Anyone’s who’s ever written a history paper or taken a history class knows that you can never truly finish researching. Which is why, in the final months up until the exhibition opening, we find ourselves time and time again in Olin Library pouring over books and at the Special Collections & Archives leafing through file after file. Most recently, we did a final scouring of all the Wesleyan yearbooks (each titled “Olla Podrida“) ever published since 1916 (the year the Van Vleck Observatory was dedicated) in a hunt for pertinent images and photographs. The very last Olla Podrida was published in 2008, so we didn’t have quite 100 years to look through. Us student workers divvied up the years, and soon we are all flipping pages and pages and pages in Olin, where almost all of the editions are located. Hope you enjoy getting a first look at some of our coolest finds!
Olla Podrida 1947
Olla Podrida 1957
Olla Podrida 1960
Olla Podrida 1971
Olla Podrida 2005
The Van Vleck Observatory seems to have secured its place on the top of the hill–once Observatory Hill, now Foss Hill–for good! Hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane just as much as we have!
For months it seemed as if the museum exhibit at the observatory was just a mirage on the horizon, something we knew we were all working towards but didn’t really know exactly what would be when we actually got there. At last, we’re so close to the opening of our exhibit! We have a finalized list of objects that Matt’s been laboring over and a script that Roy, Amrys, and Paul have been slaving a way at for weeks!
Writing a script for a museum exhibit comes with its own quirks and challenges. We’re not writing a history report or a critical essay; we’re trying to communicate to a public audience the significance of the Van Vleck Observatory to Wesleyan, Middletown, astronomy, and even the arts by showing some of the coolest objects we have around.
So, with some objects on the shelves and a draft of the script in all of our hands, we started to “run-through” the exhibit at our weekly Monday meeting.
Some shelves look just about museum ready!
And some shelves are still being used as office supplies storage space.
Amrys and Roy project to camp out in the library up until the opening of the exhibit.
Now what would a run-through of the exhibit be without a consultation of our exhibit-creating Bible, Beverely Serrel’s second edition of Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach?
We’re really getting down to the nitty-gritty of the exhibit now! More to come soon!
Although the two phases of our exhibit planning overlap a great deal, at some point in the past several months, the Under CT Skies project transitioned from its research phase to its implementation phase. This means we’re starting to make the decisions that will definitively determine the form of our exhibit. It also means there are more power tools involved.
And so, last Friday, Tom Castelli of the Wesleyan Science Machine Shop (located in the basement of the Exley Science Building) paid a visit at the Van Vleck Observatory. Tom has been mocking up potential panels for the exhibit using lexan sheets and leftover wood from recent construction at the Usdan Student Center. The wood is quite lovely and matches that of the VVO library very well.
Tom showed us what he’s been up to, and now I’m going to show you!
It might not look like much yet, but this is quite an important step in this phase of our exhibit-making. Just one panel raises a whole set of questions about the shape the exhibit will soon take.
For example, how are we to best protect what goes on the other side of the glass? Do we need to use material that filters out UV light so we can preserve our historical artifacts and, perhaps a bit less-importantly, our exhibit labels?
We ruled out using UV-filtering window shades because the Van Vleck library has rather lovely windows that we wouldn’t want to hide completely.
Other questions that I had included, “What is in Tom’s mysterious bag that he keeps going back to??”
And with that mystery, and a few others solved, Tom went on his way to search for UV-filtered panel options.
I’ll leave you with this artsy picture I took of Tom, Amrys, and Roy investigating the wooden overlay to the glass plates on the opposite wall of the library.
Bonus points if you noticed that the glass plates are missing. The reason why? Stay tuned for more exhibit updates!
My favorite part of putting together a history exhibit is getting to look through other people’s things. Certainly Frederick Slocum will not walk in on me as I’m hunched over his letters, and yet, I still feel like I’m intruding. But I’m not going to stop poking around, so let’s intrude together.
Slocum’s correspondence shows that he frequently allowed elementary school classes and intrigued guests into his observatory. He would let them look through the telescope, teach them about the moon and visible planets, and maybe leave them with some pictures of the stars. Classroom teachers in particular reached out to him from far and wide, from Flint, Michigan to Middletown itself. Though Slocum mostly published his work in academic journals, he clearly had an interest in making astronomy accessible to those outside of academia as well.
Amidst all of the letters to Slocum in our collection, one from a fifth grade class in Franklin, North Carolina stood out to me. The letter, dated October 31, 1934, is written in perfect grade-school cursive.
If the adorableness of their letter doesn’t hook you in enough, maybe this will: this fifth grade class’s teacher was Mrs. S. Edward Eaton, née Olive Eddy, who was Slocum’s own student in 1905 at Pembroke Hall. Enclosed with the students’ letter was her own, asking if the professor remembered her, and then immediately answering her own question with: “Of course you don’t.”
Mrs. Eaton was wrong. A mere two weeks later, Slocum responded, “I certainly do remember Olive Eddy and I am delighted to hear from her.” Enclosed with this letter to Mrs. Eaton was an extensive reply to her fifth graders’ queries. He included more than one interesting thing: he wrote about when the next eclipses were (down to the exact hour); what exactly to look at in the sky in order to see them; and also gave them a few photographs of the moon, Venus, the Van Vleck Observatory, and the observatory’s telescope.
I cannot easily tell you much about the moon at this distance, but if you can induce Mrs. Eaton to sew some wings on your shoulders so you can all fly up here, I will show you the moon through the telescope, and tell you all I know about it while are you looking.
Slocum’s writing and research proved that he knew how to address crowds steeped in academia, but this letter shows that he also knew how to appeal to children’s whimsy and blossoming interest in science.
As the fall semester quickly approaches its conclusion, we at the Under Connecticut Skies project have much to be thankful for. The support of Wesleyan University, Connecticut Humanities, and, as of this week, the NASA Connecticut Space Grant College Consortium, which has just awarded us a Faculty STEM Eduction Programming Grant to help make our exhibition a reality next spring. The students, faculty, staff, alumni, and amateur astronomers who have contributed to our oral history project. The folks at WESU 88.1 FM, who have generously been helping us record some of our oral histories. The reporters and journalists who have covered our work. Staff at the New Haven Museum, Middlesex County Historical Society, Connecticut Historical Society, and Connecticut River Museum, who have shared ideas and techniques with us. And, most of all, our dedicated team of faculty, staff, students, and community partners who have made this project possible.
One of the major goals of our project is producing an historical exhibition, the physical component of which will be located in the VVO library. In essence, we’re building a small museum. We’re now at the stage of planning the displays themselves–layout of items, photos, and documents and writing of text–and realizing precisely the unique challenges imposed by working in a space whose layout will remain essentially unchanged throughout the process.
The student researchers and faculty mentors spent the day last Thursday (with a pesky astronomer) in the library, sketching out exhibits on “blank canvases” (the backs of old conference posters we scrounged up from around the observatory). Here are a few behind-the-scenes photos.