Exhibit Grand Opening At Last!

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!

One week to go! An Exhibition in the Making

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.”

Astronomical images backlit from inside the cabinets

Astronomical images backlit from inside the cabinets. Photo by the author.

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.

Moving books across the room in a most-efficient style

Moving books across the room in a most-efficient style. Photo by the author.

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!

The inside of the exhibit cabinets fully-fitted with DIY light-fixtures

Ta-dah! The inside of the exhibit cabinets fully-fitted with DIY light-fixtures. Photo by the author.

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!

Photo of the author stacking books on the formerly-empty Van Vleck library shelves

Photo of the author stacking books on the formerly-empty Van Vleck library shelves. I appear to be floating because I was standing on a step-stool (not pictured) at the time the photo was taken. Photo by Roy Kilgard.

Digging Deep in the Archives: We keep finding cool stuff!

Correspondence from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum

Correspondence from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

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.

Boxes and folders of archival material at Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives

Leith set up a space for me in the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives with several boxes to examine. The most fruitful folder was the “[Exley] Computer Room” folder. Like some other things in our exhibit, I handled all photographs with white gloves. Photo by the author.

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?

Computers as big as rooms

Computers as big as rooms! Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Student at Desk-sized computer

Desk-sized computers! Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Image of Frederick Slocum

Random picture of Frederick Slocum thrown in the mix? Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

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!

Student working at IBM keypunch machine. Van Vleck basement identifiable based on the chalkboard (that's still there).

Student working at IBM keypunch machine. Van Vleck basement identifiable based on the chalkboard (that’s still there). Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Students working in the Van Vleck computing center basement.

Students working in the Van Vleck computing center basement. You might recognize the radiators, chalkboard, and windows–which let us know this is the Van Vleck. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

A puzzle at the data processing unit.

A puzzle at the data processing unit. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Row of keypunch machines with students and secretaries working.

Mac desktop computers have since replaced this row of keypunch machines. Alas, ’tis naught but nostalgia. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Museum Exhibit or Construction Zone? 2nd Edition!

Roy works on his computer in the library

Roy works on his computer in his new office space. Photo by the author.

Recently, Roy and Amrys have moved into the Van Vleck Observatory library. I’m not sure if they ever actually leave these days…they’re so dedicated to this project!

A random sample of what was on the table one day I was in the library.

Roy works on his computer in his new office space. Photo by the author.

The content of the tabletops is always in flux. There are light fixtures, coffee mugs, paper towels, 5 different varieties of velcro, various objects in the exhibit, post-it notes and other office supplies, post cards, exhibit scripts, tchotchkes, computers, books, books about computers, books about human computers, full-scale reproductions of historical images, cameras, eye glasses, water glasses, glass plates, commemorative plates, and lots and lots and lots of notes and to-do lists.

Very very old unopened Campbell's soup can

Very very old (18-years-old) unopened Campbell’s soup-can. Photo by the author.

Furthermore, the 18-years old Campbell’s soup-can (it expired in 1998) has joined Roy and Amrys’s office table, which is really just one of the library tables that was there all along. Roy has called the soup-can the “talisman” of the project, and that sounds about right to me. I asked him if he thought that there might be a black hole inside the soup-can that would make opening the can rather risky. Because Roy studies black holes for a living, I trusted his answer of “it could be.” Additionally, a tiny moon-shaped stress-ball now sits on top of the soup-can because “sometimes you just need to squeeze a tiny moon-shaped stress ball.” That also sounds right considering the amount of things going on in the library these days.

Our exhibit also has the help of several tiny plastic soldiers who keep a faithful guard on the Van Vleck Observatory at all times.

Tiny plastic soldier on library windowsill

Tiny plastic soldier watches for the enemy (light pollution!!) outside the Van Vleck library’s window. Photo by the author.

Suffice it to say that some of us are going a little loopy up on Observatory Hill, where the air really isn’t that much different. In any case, all these tchotchkes and historical artifacts and office supplies all mixed together at once really does make me happy in a very silly way for which I cannot truly account. I share this post with you now, because if you come visit the exhibit, you most-likely will not find expired soup-cans, tiny plastic soldiers, yards of velcro, boxes of lightbulbs, or even office supplies in the exhibit.

Or will you? (*wink wink*)

Museum Exhibit or Construction Zone?

Door to the Van Vleck Library while the exhibition creation is underway.

Door to the Van Vleck Library while the exhibition creation is underway. Photo by the author.

At this point, it’s hard to tell. Creating a permanent museum exhibit on a budget is…let’s say…challenging. To cut down on costs, we’re creating a lot of what goes into the exhibit ourselves. Everything from the lighting to the shelving to the mat board that goes behind the shelving is student and staff-constructed. We’ve got Roy, Amrys, and Paul calling the shots, Tom Castelli at the Science Machine Shop doing all sorts of crazy things with leftover wood, leftover plexiglass, and an assortment of power tools, and the students who are willing to do just about anything else.

Tom has put together a bunch of the museum cabinet covers. When actually placed in front of a cabinet, it really feels like we are creating a museum!

Protective glass for cabinet space against cabinet.

Door to the Van Vleck Library while the exhibition creation is underway. Photo by the author.

Melissa’s been cutting and trimming mat board to fit into the cabinets, brightening up the space a bit with a soft green hue.

Cut mat board to go in cabinets.

Cut mat board to go in cabinets. Labor by Melissa Joskow. Photo by the author.

Matt’s been assembling light fixtures, literally brightening up the cabinet spaces. The lights will illuminate exhibit objects.

Matt creates lighting fixtures for the museum cabinets

Matt assembles lighting fixtures for the museum cabinets. Photo by the author.

Matt shows off a light fixture that he'd been working on.

It works! Matt shows off a light fixture that he’d been working on. Photo by the author.

Michaela’s cleaned up the vitrine in the hallway and lathered on a new coat of paint. The cabinet used to display objects like the Van Vleck guestbook, chronomoters, sextants, and other cool astronomical artifacts. Now a lot of that will be going into the permanent exhibit!


Note the protective plastic bagging of the Fisk telescope on the left. Photo by the author.

As for me, I started on cleaning all the shelves in the library itself. Paul gave a hand, and then Roy and Melissa finished the job up another day.

Materials for cleaning the library shelves.

Materials for cleaning the library shelves. Photo by the author.

There’s a thousand things left to do for this project, but everyone seems really excited and ready to work! Can’t wait to see how things shape up in just the next couple weeks!

Scripting the History of Astronomy at the Van Vleck Observatory

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.

Reading the script out loud for the first time in the Van Vleck Library

Reading the script out loud for the first time in the Van Vleck Library–future site of the permanent exhibit. Photo by the author.

Some shelves look just about museum ready!

One possible layout of one cabinet of the exhibition.

One possible layout of one cabinet of the exhibition. Photo by the author.

cabinet with an array of interesting objects and books

One cabinet with an array of interesting objects and books, layout to be finalized. Photo by the author.

And some shelves are still being used as office supplies storage space.

Museum shelf currently used as office supply collection space.

Museum shelf currently used as office supply collection space. Photo by the author.

Amrys and Roy project to camp out in the library up until the opening of the exhibit.

Amrys and Roy discussing the exhibit script in the Van Vleck Library.

Amrys and Roy discussing the exhibit script in the Van Vleck Library. Photo by the author.

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?

Michaela reads from Serrel's "Exhibit Labels"

Michaela reads from Serrel’s “Exhibit Labels” reminding us that word count for each Introductory Label, Group Label, and Caption Label is extremely important! Photo by the author.

We’re really getting down to the nitty-gritty of the exhibit now! More to come soon!

One for the money, two for the show…

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!

Mock-up panel in library

Ta-da! This is a mock up panel that Tom made for the exhibit. Note: the protective sheet is still on the glass! (Photo by the author).

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?

Library window facing college row and the 20-inch dome

As far as windows go, this is a pretty great one. And just look at the view! (Photo by the author)

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??”

Tom searches his bag

Tom searches his seemingly magical bag. (Photo by the author)


What was in Tom's bag

Nosey author discovers what magic was indeed inside Tom’s bag.

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.


Roy, Amrys, and Paul in the library

Tom, Amrys, and Roy in the library. (Photo by the sometimes artsy author)

Bonus points if you noticed that the glass plates are missing. The reason why? Stay tuned for more exhibit updates!