The projectors have arrived! Last week we conducted our first test in preparation for the Rotunda Planetarium’s November 1 launch. Over the course of the summer, we’ll be running more projection tests, prepping exhibition materials, and chronicling our thoughts on the blog—stay tuned as things develop.
The projectors will be arrayed around the upper gallery of the dome room, where they’ll remain for the exhibit’s duration. Each projector will display a different image of the night sky; once stitched together, these images will encircle the interior of the Rotunda’s dome. During our next couple of tests, we’ll be working to determine optimum placement for the projectors so that the images fit together without gaps.
To create the images themselves, we’ve traced constellations from John Flamsteed’s star atlas, Atlas Coelestis (1729). Why Flamsteed? While Thomas Jefferson didn’t specify a design for his proposed celestial dome, he did purchase a copy of Flamsteed’s work for the University of Virginia’s first library, which was housed in the dome room (today, you can still see the catalog of stars that was shelved with the Rotunda library copy of the Atlas Coelestis in Special Collections—the University’s copy of Flamsteed’s illustrated atlas does not survive).
By projecting illustrations from the Atlas Coelestis, we hope to evoke the kinds of materials a nineteenth-century student of astronomy might have encountered in this space, while also referencing the Rotunda’s early history as a library. To that end, we’ve decided to project our images in black and white—the iconic colors of print—rather than execute Jefferson’s original vision of blue and gold.
Throughout this project, we’ll be working to explore the Rotunda as a site of interdisciplinary learning and discovery, where astronomy books shared space with travel narratives, surgical dictionaries, and treatises on manure. We’ll also be grappling with the Rotunda’s legacy as a space in which these opportunities to learn so often depended on the exclusion and labor of others, including the enslaved people who constructed the Rotunda and assisted faculty with experiments in the building. (If you’re interested in thinking more about the complexities of engaging Jefferson in the present day, check out the new Notes on the State podcast produced by UVA’s Carter G. Woodson Center for African-American and African Studies.)