When you look up at the endless night sky, does your mind start to wonder? Which constellations can I see? How far away is the moon? What do the planets and stars look like through a telescope?
Luckily, earthbound wonderers can search for answers at places like Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, which has a mission “to inspire exploration and understanding of our Universe.” The Adler Planetarium claims the distinction of being the first modern planetarium in the western hemisphere, having opened on May 12th, 1930. It’s also one of the oldest planetariums – period – and has “one of the largest and most significant collections of historic scientific instruments in the world.”
Jennifer Brand, the Collections Manager for the Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy at the Adler Planetarium, is very familiar with this impressive collection, which has been central to the planetarium’s work since its founding. “Founder Max Adler purchased a collection of about 500 historic scientific instruments at auction before the planetarium’s opening,” explains Brand. From sundials, telescopes and historic maps to actual meteorites and an Apollo 8 flight suit, the planetarium’s collection is truly out of this world.
The planetarium’s simultaneous roles as a collecting institution and a place of continuing wonder underline the ongoing process of advancing knowledge, creating tangible links between the discoveries of the past, present, and future. “The Adler’s instrument, rare book and print collections really encapsulate these very innate motivations that serve our mission,” Brand highlights. When I ask about her favorite objects, she responds, “The Adler has so many wonderful objects, so it is difficult to chose just one…so I’ll pick two.”
|Right: Equatorial sundial in pocket watch, Johann Martin Willebrand. Germany, ca. 1723. (Adler Collections, A-401).
Center and Left: Georg von Peurbach, [Figurae theoricae novae]. Italy, mid-16th century. (Adler Collections, MS.5).
Click here to see more pages from this manuscript.
Brand continues, “My current favorites include: A pocket watch with a companion Augsburg-type sundial (A-401). Closed, it is a lovely instrument but once opened, a beautifully crafted, elaborate gilt brass sundial is revealed. My second favorite is a small, mid 16th century manuscript by Georg von Peurbach (Ms.5). It contains twenty richly colored, moveable, volvelles (diagrams of planetary movements) constructed from vellum and paper. The manuscript also contains enviously elaborate, meticulous handwriting, which lends a very personal aspect to the object.”
These objects and others like them add a tangible connection to learning about our universe, allowing today’s visitors to engage with the people, processes, and materials that have surrounded big questions about the universe and our place in it for centuries. In addition to its onsite domed theaters, engaging tours, and exhibitions in galleries, the planetarium has recently launched a new online collections database, opening this kind of exploration and learning to people beyond Chicago and facilitating new kinds of discovery.
“It is very exciting, because the entire collection – archives, objects, rare books and prints – are now united under one database and searchable catalog, complemented by beautiful images of the pieces,” says Brand. And this database is going to get even better, she notes: “My colleagues Jodi Lacy, Lauren Boegen and Sara Gonzales recently began work on the Celestial Cartography Digitization Project. This project, assisted by the National Endowment for Humanities, involves scanning and digitization of the Adler’s celestial cartography collection.” This level of access to the collection is a dream for anyone who can spend an astronomical amount of time on a museum’s online database, from scholars and K-12 students to backyard stargazers.
Of the Adler Planetarium’s collection, Brand remarks that its components “trace humanity’s curiosity about our world, our place in the universe and our efforts to observe and understand it.” When a collection like this is activated in the present tense – whether that happens in the planetarium’s galleries or through online discovery – the ways in which it can inform and feed our own curiosities are myriad. So the next time you look up at the stars and have a question, you might want to bring your question into contact with the spaces, programs, and collections of a place like the Adler Planetarium. Past and present, on this planet and beyond it, there’s plenty to explore.