Cultural connections: resources

RASC—Eyes on the Universe for 150 Years


Cultural Connections - resources


The many local initiatives in exploring cultural astronomy were a highlight of IYA2009. Such projects offered experiences to communities which resulted from creative partnerships between astronomical groups and arts organizations. Many members of the RASC took active roles in making those initiatives a success. The RASC 2018 Working Group would like to encourage Centres, and unattached members, to consider undertaking cooperative projects marrying astronomy with the arts. This will offer an opportunity in 2018 to introduce aspects of astronomy to new audiences, and enrich your own experiences. And now is the time to reach out to possible partners in your community.

Some of the IYA2009 cultural partnership projects are briefly described in the final report for Canada, which can be found here (see in particular sections 3.8, & 3.15-3.16). The 2009 projects can serve as an inspiration in 2017 for 2018. It need hardly be said that the range of projects possible greatly exceeds what we did eight years ago.

If you or your Centre already have a working relationship with a partner in your local arts community, and you've enjoyed working together in the past, then why not do so again for RASC 2018? If your Centre has not embarked on a partnership with an arts organization before, and you sense that there is centre interest, then 2018 could be the perfect time to try.

We include a model letter here which can be adapted to your local circumstances (remember to replace the italicized sections with text appropriate to your situation!). If you have a specific project in mind, the penultimate paragraph of the model letter could include the details.

note: the use of [C] below indicates either a Canadian creator, or Canadian content.


visual arts

Venues for astronomy themed visual-arts events come in all sizes, from the most intimate cafe walls, to large institutions specifically designed for art. The materials for a show can be entirely based on graphic records of recent observations following strictly representational canons of "eyepiece verisimilitude" (exemplified by the sorts of things published in the gallery sections of astronomy magazines), or be drawn from other ways of representing the universe - symbolist, expressionist, surrealist, superrealist, and so on. An exhibit may be devoted to the work of a single creator (e.g., Alan Dyer [C], or Paterson Ewen [C]), an association of creators (e.g., RASC Astrosketchers [C], or the Flamsteed inspired uranographers), a time period (e.g., "Haunted Landscapes: 20th-Century Abandoned Observatories"), a subject (e.g., peculiar galaxies, planetary conjunctions, periodic comets, atmospheric distortion), a "revolution" (e.g., visualizing the expanding universe), or any combination of these. It may be commercial, or non-commercial.

Professional artists, or curators in your community may be more interested in working with you than you imagine. Some gallery management models are more flexible, and require less fixed-into-the-far-future scheduling than others. Don't overlook museum studies students - they have been introduced to professional standards, and are there to practice their craft. They may like the challenge of collaborating with you to produce an astronomy themed visual arts show, and are willing to do it solely for credit. Inquiries cost nothing.

Check the internet for past shows, by way of example, such as this exhibit of an art collective, or this show produced by one of the premier BIG science projects, or this exposition highlighting the work of a single artist, or these historical observational records in a display context.


performing arts

Think theatre arts, dance, music, spoken word, or mixtures of these. While not vastly abundant, there are more plays about astronomers all the time, such as Maureen Hunter's [C] Transit of Venus (about Guillaume Le Gentil, 1992), Stuart Hoar's Bright Star (about Beatrice Tinsley, 2005), Lauren Gunderson's Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight (2008), & Silent Sky (about Henrietta Leavitt, 2015), Robert Bringhurst's [C] Ursa major (a masque juxtaposing Cree constellation traditions with Greco-Roman parallels, 2009), and Jennifer Wise's [C] Orbit  (on Galileo's family, 2014), to name a few*. RASC honorary member Andrew Fraknoi has written about some of them.

The spoken word combined with music can prove very effective. Perhaps the best recent anthology of astronomically-themed poetry is Dark Matter: Poems of Space, ed. Maurice Riordan & Jocelyn Bell Burnell (London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2008). Astronomically themed poetry by single authors is also worth considering, such as Alice Major's [C], Standard Candles (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2015). Letters of astronomers are another fascinating source for the spoken-word content of events, such as those of Charles Messier's colleague Jérôme Lalande (1732-1807), now appearing in the Lalandiana series (2007-) published by Libraire philosophique J. VRIN. Biographies of astronomers are also a source for letters, such as Roger Lonsdale, Dr. Charles Burney: a Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) -  Burney is a particularly good subject, for this friend of William Herschel's was also a composer and a published amateur astronomer (also see the multi-volume memoir of him by his daughter, Fanny Burney, Madame d'Arblay). Also from the same period is the correspondence of the well-connected astronomer Baron Franz Xaver von Zach (1754-1832), available in English translation in The Collected Correspondence of Baron Franz Xaver von Zach, tr. Clifford J. Cunningham, 7 vols. (Kitchener, ON: Star Lab Press, 2004-2009 - the project awaits completion).

Dance is another field which ought not to be neglected, as this company, and others have shown.

Concerts and recitals of music written by astronomers, music associated with astronomers, and music on astronomical themes readily come to mind in this category. Some repertoire and approaches are discussed by Andrew Fraknoi here. It is important to recognize that standard lists of choices from the world of classical music tend to be pretty predictable, and, well..."standard". There actually exists a vast body of surviving music on astronomical themes dating from ca. 1100-1400, which remains unexploited. Equally underexposed in today's concert halls are the works of many astronomers who were also musicians, from ca. 1300-1800. Perhaps RASC 2018 will provide the opportunity to hear more of that repertoire.

The Space Age (which turns 60 this year) engendered its own sounds, which can find a place in performances. Plasma waves in the interplanetary medium detected by planetary probes have been represented as sound waves audible to the human ear. The acoustic waves which propagate through the Sun (the study of helioseismology) and other stars (the province of asteroseismology) can also be represented by sound waves audible to us, as can gravity waves produced by merging back holes, and merging neutron stars. Musicians used to improvising can work with this material, as can composers in various genres. Don Gurnett, the James A. Van Allen Professor of Physics at the University of Iowa, maintains a Space Audio resources page of such material.

Those with a taste for music both modern and demanding might explore the astronomy-themed scores by Canadian composers available from the Canadian Music Centre [C]. Depending on your local circumstances and resources, you might even be able to commission a new astronomy-themed piece in celebration of RASC 2018.


another approach...

All the examples cited above come from the culture of the "West". Depending on the cultural composition of your community, and a willingness to reach out, you may be able to partner with artistic practitioners from non-"Western" cultures to craft a cross-cultural event on the theme of astronomy. This could be particularly valuable if it reveals other ways of looking at, and representing, the universe. Your event may even break new ground for Canadian audiences. And that, in its own way, will make history.

―R.A. Rosenfeld


For more information or assistance in developing your project, please contact randall <dot> rosenfeld <at>, and James <dot> Hesser <at>


*listing here does not imply any endorsement of the scientific or historical accuracy of the texts - caveat emptor!

Last modified: 
Sunday, January 14, 2024 - 6:40pm