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Smithsonian Exhibition Invites Visitors to Help Recover Their Fading Night Sky

Smithsonian Exhibition Invites Visitors to Help Recover Their Fading Night Sky

Washington, D.C.—The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will open “Lights Out: Recovering Our Night Sky” Thursday, March 23, a new 4,340-square-foot exhibition about how the night sky—and its disappearance due to light pollution—affects all life on Earth, from natural ecosystems to human cultures. The exhibition will remain on view through December 2025.

For billions of years, life on Earth has danced to a cycle of sun and stars, day and night, light and dark. But light pollution from artificial lights has disrupted this pattern around the world, making nights brighter in ways that affect nature and people. For many people, this is the new normal. More than 80% of people worldwide live under some degree of light-polluted skies. In North America, 80% of the continent’s population cannot see the Milky Way galaxy in the night sky due to light pollution. However, there are simple actions concerned citizens can take to help reclaim their view of the stars at night.

“‘Lights Out’ will give visitors the opportunity to learn what is at stake as the stars and cosmos fade from our view at night,” said Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. “And we’ll also offer them the tools and resources they need to help rebuild and preserve the night sky in their own communities.”

Through extraordinary photographs, objects from the museum’s collections and interactive displays, “Lights Out: Recovering Our Night Sky” offers ways to discover and regain people’s connection with the night sky. In addition to the exhibition’s visual components, it also offers opportunities for blind and low vision visitors, as well as visitors who prioritize experiential and multi-sensory learning. Audio descriptions of the night sky, tactile displays of animals affected by light pollution and an audio tour will be available as part of the exhibition.

“Since the dawn of humanity, we have been able to look up at the night sky and reflect on the wonder and mysteries of the world, a powerful experience that many diverse cultures have celebrated and held sacred,” said Stephen Loring, co-curator of the exhibition and archaeologist with the museum’s Arctic Studies Center. “Our exhibition will ask visitors to stop and consider what a disappearing night sky means to them and what they can do to help restore it for themselves and others.”

“We hope that visitors will see how growing, pervasive light pollution is limiting our ability to observe the universe around us,” said guest exhibition co-curator Kim Arcand, the Chandra visualization scientist and emerging technology lead with the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. “We want people to want to take action to preserve natural dark skies.”

Visitors to “Lights Out” will learn about the history of lighting and the unintended consequences of pervasive lighting. They will explore the effects of artificial lighting on the natural world and cultural connections between humanity and the night sky. They will also discover lighting principles that can be used to reduce light pollution and ways they can experience starry nights in their own region. Major sections of the exhibition include:

  • History of Lighting and Light Pollution: As visitors enter the gallery from the museum’s rotunda, they are introduced to the wonder of the night sky—and the problem of light pollution—through displays and text that show how drastically people’s view of the night sky has changed in the past few centuries, and even decades, due to overuse of artificial lighting. Among the displays, visitors will see examples of how lighting technology has changed from oil lamps used by the Romans in the first century A.D. to the invention of the first light bulb to modern use of LED lights today.
  • The Dark Side of Light: This section of the exhibition will examine the many ways that artificial light associated with human activity—from city lights to energy production to roadways—can have unintended consequences. For example, astronomers were among the first people to draw attention to the problem of light pollution due to the challenges it poses to observing space from Earth. As it has spread, light pollution has pushed astronomers and observatories into increasingly remote locations in order to study the night sky effectively.
  • Who Needs the Dark?: Many organisms evolved to live in the dark, just as many evolved to be active during the day—including humans. Both kinds of organisms need a daily cycle of light and dark to regulate their metabolic processes and behaviors. When this cycle is disrupted, there can be wide-scale ecosystem impacts. This section explores the ways that light pollution affects wildlife and ecosystems in complex ways.
  • Experience the Night: Visitors can experience the awe and wonder of a dark, starry “sky” in an immersive space. In the center of the gallery, a multimedia program will take visitors from dusk to dawn, with a soundtrack of nocturnal animals and a narrated storytelling segment comparing different cultures’ interpretation of the Pleiades star cluster.
  • Connecting with the Night Sky: Visitors can continue to explore different cultures’ connections to the night sky through photographs, artwork and artifacts. These images and objects will showcase the richness of human diversity, and visitors will come away with a sense of the universal common threads underlying humanity’s relationship with the night sky.
  • Reclaiming the Night Sky: In this section, visitors gain hands-on experience learning what they can do to mitigate light pollution. Displays will share the “Five Principles of Responsible Outdoor Lighting,” developed by the International Dark-Sky Association and the Illuminating Engineering Society, presenting solutions for common poor-lighting practices. Visitors will get to explore both good and bad lighting examples in a fictional community and see how simple changes like shielding fixtures can have dramatic effects. Photographs of entire communities that have adopted “dark sky” lighting practices show how individual changes scale up when people work together.
  • Embracing the Dark: This section features gorgeous images of protected dark sky areas around the world. Visitors can look at the map to learn where they too can experience such starry nights. This section also gives visitors stargazing tips no matter where they live—whether or not they can access these protected areas. It also gives tips on how people can start taking photos like the ones featured in the exhibition or get involved in citizen science.
  • Measuring the Night’s Darkness: This section will show visitors a spectrum of night-sky photos accompanied by tactile elements and sonifications that will help them recognize the state of light pollution where they live.

“Lights Out: Recovering Our Night Sky” was made possible by the support of the Windland Smith Rice Endowment and the contributed expertise of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Access Smithsonian, The World At Night (TWAN), the International Dark-Sky Association, NASA, the National Audubon Society’s Lights Out Program, City Wildlife (Lights Out DC), the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division and the Illuminating Engineering Society.

The exhibition will be available to members of the news media for a press preview March 22. Members of the media interested in the open house are asked to contact the museum’s press office to schedule an appointment (contact information is provided in the header of this press release).

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