The #SotonAstroArt project engages the general public and artists with research techniques which astronomers used back in the 1980’s with clear links to how astrophysics research is done today!

The project came about by accident as the University of Southampton (UoS) Astronomy department had over 4,000 POSS/SRC photographic plates that mapped the whole of the celestial night sky that were about to be destroyed. These beautiful relics of astronomy could have been lost forever. However, we managed to save them and instead ‘gave away the whole Universe to artists’.

1. Introduction

It is generally quite easy to get people engaged with the subjects of space and astronomy, however, as astronomy outreach professional we often struggle to design `hands-on’ demonstrations that allow people to feel a `physical connection’ to astronomy research.

Each of the photographic plates is different and even though the plates are no longer used by professional astronomers they all have lots of scientific data on them and this data still has meaning today. By giving these photographic negatives of the celestial sky away to artists we have given them each a piece of the Universe to hold in their hands and this has inspired them to create very innovative art pieces.

We predict that by ‘the act’ of making their art they have become more engaged in astronomy research. Then in turn by exhibiting their pieces and writing about them on our website the general public and the astronomers are also engaged. 

The story of the plates and the artwork that has been created is shown on our #SotonAstroArt project website at https://sotonastroart.wordpress.com/ and on social media using the hashtag #SotonAstroArt.

The artists first got the opportunity to exhibit their work on the University of Southampton campus in November 2017, this was in combination with a bespoke planetarium show, and we are planning other exhibits, in Winchester, UK in July and in London, UK before the end of September 2018. At these exhibits the artists will be part of the whole process, they will curate the exhibit and assist the academics to decide which information about their research is most relevant to the public. The artists will also be invited to interact with the public who attend the exhibit.

We plan to give everyone who attends the exhibit a printed leaflet/booklet, which has further information on the artwork, the artists themselves, and finally UoS astronomy research from past and present and how it relates to the photographic plates.

The project was recently awarded £1k from the University Public Engagement with Research Unit (PERu) to link to Dark Energy Survey (DES) research which is being carried out in the Physics and Astronomy department at the UoS. We therefore plan to provide information about this research at future exhibits and write bespoke planetarium shows on the DES research.

2. The Story

In 2017, in my role as the ‘Outreach Leader in Astronomy’ within the Physics and Astronomy department at UoS I was approached by the building manager regarding three filing cabinets filled full of 4,000 astronomical photographic plates. They explained that based on new health and safety fire regulations that these three large cabinets, which were also the main fire exit route from the large lecture theatre, would need to be removed and the contents destroyed. I was horrified to learn that these plates, which were individually all beautiful images that together mapped the whole of the sky, were going to be destroyed. I began to think of ways that they could be saved and started by posting a picture of a plate onto social media, and asked that the post to be reposted such that artists and other interested publics might see it. The post was reposted hundreds of times over a few days and I was instantly bombarded with emails from interested artists from all over the world. As a result we succesfull gave away ‘the whole universe’, all of these 4,000 photographic plates, many to local artists, but some as far away from the UK as America and Sweden.

These plates not only represent a piece of research history but also were a great opportunity for people to get a very rare experience, a `hands-on’ encounter with astrophysics research.

Our aim is to promote, through art, current UoS astrophysics research, specifically that of the Dark Energy Survey (DES). We want to show how UoS astronomers would have used the photographic negatives of the night sky back in the 1980s. We hope that this will create a new forum for artists and astronomers to communicate and inspire each other.

3. The Surveys

The first attempt to survey the ‘whole sky’ was the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS) survey in the 1950s. Each part of the sky was imaged in 2 filters, blue (B) and red (R). This survey mapped from +90° to -30°. Each image from the survey was made into a 14 inch square photographic plate which covered 6 degrees of the sky (along each side) for use by astronomers.

In the 1980s there was a second version of this survey which was called the Northern Sky Survey (POSS II),  this covered for declinations 0° to +90°. And in the 1990’s these two surveys, POSS and POSS II were converted into digital format and became easily accessible on the Internet, hence why they are now obsolete and the department wanted us to get rid of them. There are also additional surveys the European Southern Observatory (ESO) made the Southern Sky Survey (SRC) for declinations < -20°,  in Blue (B) and Red (R). Finally, in the UK the Schmidt Equatorial Sky Survey (SERC) covered declinations between 0° and -15° in Blue (B) and Red (R).

4. The Impact

The project will have an impact on the artists, the astronomers and the public. The main challenge is to be able to quantify this impact on these three groups of people.

We predict that the artists will benefit from the project through working with a new medium and they will learn about past and current astronomy research from both the website and direct contact with the astronomers.

The astronomy academics will learn what the public and the artists find most interesting about their research and this will benefit their future public engagement talks and the research itself. Also, myself and the academics in my outreach team will learn more about how this new group of diverse people run their art businesses, how they create their art and how they organise and curate an art exhibit. They will come to understand what is the most inspiring aspects of these ‘old’ plates from the artists perspectives, as opposed to that of the scientist/astronomer who is trained to see something very different. The predicted result of this interaction with outreach professionals is that they design more creative outreach and public engagement activities in the future. Finally, the public will be able to engage, perhaps unexpectedly, with astronomy research through an interest in art. This might lead them to think about the creative nature of the Universe and how it can be interpreted in different ways.

5. Summary

The #SotonAstroArt project has grown naturally from a need to distribute astronomical survey plates to a location where they are not potentially hazardous. This wordpress website, specifically the Home page where Sadie does blog posts about the project, is the best place to look for up to date information on the #SotonAstroArt project: https://sotonastroart.wordpress.com/

 The main challenges we face regarding the future success of this project is the lack of funding. All 4,000 plates have been distributed to over 40 artists across the world. Our November 2018 exhibit involved 7 artists, so we are confident the next exhibit will be even bigger, given that there has been more time for the artists to complete their art work. Throughout the project we need to ensure there are clear links to UoS DES research and we specifically need to look at methods for tracking the impact the work has had on the artists by interviewing them at different stages throughout the project.

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