Starstruck: Astronomers in Popular Culture

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What do a tea set, a telescope, a life mask, and a music album have in common? While these objects may seem on the surface to be very different, they all have to do with the interactions between astronomers, astronomy, and popular culture. Famed astronomer Annie Jump Cannon broke boundaries for women in astronomy while still taking part in the culture of her day by owning a tea set; William Cranch Bond was the first director of the Harvard Observatory, but also a clockmaker who had his likeness preserved in a life mask. Fred Whipple, through Project Moonwatch, inspired a generation of citizen astronomers to look to the stars. All of them lived in the context of popular culture, in a world where we are all captivated by the stars.

Starstruck! explored these themes – how famous astronomers were regular people, regular people were astronomers, and how we all look to the stars to inspire us. Featuring the tea set of Annie Jump Cannon, the life mask of William Cranch Bond, several telescopes from Project Moonwatch, and various astronomical pieces of pop culture memorabilia (including a playlist of astronomy-related songs that visitors can listen to at the exhibit or view online at home), the exhibit encouraged audiences to explore the various interactions between astronomers, the public, and their cultural contexts.

The opening event for the exhibit featured a performance of selections from The Observatory Pinafore, an adaptation of the famed operetta H.M.S. Pinafore originally written and performed by Harvard Observatory staff in 1879 and 1929, respectively. In this production, famous astronomers of the 19th century were portrayed by famous astronomers of the 20th century, perfectly exemplifying the intersections of popular culture, art, and astronomy. The opening performance, coupled with the experience of the exhibit’s many pieces and stories, will leave the audience with a sense of the connection between astronomers and the world they live in, as well as the world’s connection to and fascination with astronomy and the universe.

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Starstruck! was curated by a team of students from Harvard College’s United States in the World 30 Course "Tangible Things" – Nina Joy Armstrong, Mark Chamberlain, Sophie Concetta DiCara, Hannah Johnston, Isabella Kwasnik, Kaitlyn Lee, Ilgin Nas, Alvaro Quintero, and Lola Radev. These students worked under the direction of David P. Wheatland Curator Dr. Sara Schechner and designer Maureen Ton. The exhibit has been sponsored by The Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard, The Harvard Department of the History of Science, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The exhibit was made possible in part by the David P. Wheatland Charitable Trust.