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!
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!
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.
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.
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*)
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!
Melissa’s been cutting and trimming mat board to fit into the cabinets, brightening up the space a bit with a soft green hue.
Matt’s been assembling light fixtures, literally brightening up the cabinet spaces. The lights will illuminate exhibit objects.
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!
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.
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!
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!