In 2006, astronomers released a spectacular full-color
panorama of the Orion nebula, a
turbulent star-forming region located 1,500 light-years
away in the constellation of Orion the Hunter.
The seamless mosaic, containing a billion pixels, shows an
area of wispy blue-, pink- and peach-colored
dust and gas clouds and thousands of stars, some faint,
others bright blue dots with needlelike rays.
Looking at the panorama, a person can certainly wonder
whether or not he or she is witnessing
an Earth-like planetary system on the verge of forming.
One can also just take in the beautiful, multicolored
splendor of it all.
The image is one of 10 interstellar wonders on display
in a Walters Art Museum exhibit — called
Mapping the Cosmos: Images from the Hubble Space Telescope
— co-curated by undergraduates from
Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
The show serves to illustrate the inherent beauty of
the cosmos by using images that have been
instrumental in tracking its evolutionary history. Visitors
can contemplate their place in the universe
as they gaze at aesthetic objects of striking power and
The exhibition, organized in collaboration with the
Space Telescope Science
Institute, is the
first joint venture of the Walters Art Museum and the
university's Program in Museums and Society.
Mapping the Cosmos, which opened this month, will be
seen in conjunction with a larger
exhibition called Maps: Finding Our Place in the World,
which arrives in Baltimore in March from
Chicago's Field Museum. The Walters will augment the
exhibit by adding local maps to the collection.
The final image in the standing Maps exhibit is a
picture of the Earth taken from space. William
Noel, head curator of the Walters exhibit, thought why stop
there? What about the rest of the
Around that time, Elizabeth Rodini, associate director
of the Program in Museums and Society,
was busy brainstorming with Walters Art Museum Director
Gary Vikan on ways that Johns Hopkins
and the Walters could collaborate. The upcoming map
exhibition had been regularly brought up, and
Rodini mentioned the inclusion of images from the Space
Telescope Science Institute, the science
operations center for NASA's
Hubble Space Telescope that's
located on the Homewood campus.
Rodini reached out to her friend Matt Mountain, STScI
director, and out of these
conversations was born the Behind the Scenes at the Walters
Art Museum course that was to center
on the students curating an exhibit there.
"We thought, we have Hubble, in essence, right here in
our backyard, and the Museums and
Society program is looking for a project to work on with
the Walters. Why don't we put these all
together?" Rodini said. "It was all rather fortuitous."
The entire Behind the Scenes at the Walters Art Museum
course, held during the fall
semester, was dedicated to putting together this Hubble
The seven students got a crash course in astrophysics
and museum exhibit policy--and then
came the fun part: picking out the images. STScI staff made
suggestions and presented them to the
students. Each student picked five favorites, and later,
the class as a whole, with input from STScI
members, voted on which 14 should make the final cut. The
students each took ownership of two
images, which he or she researched and reported on.
Ultimately, the 14 images were whittled down to
Students also wrote the wall text for each work.
"This was truly a student-generated and -curated
project," said Rodini, who co-taught the
course with Ben Tilghman, a graduate student at Johns
Hopkins and Zanvyl Krieger Curatorial Fellow
at the Walters. "They were involved every step of the way
and had a lot of input. It was a huge team
Rodini said she was particularly impressed with the
students' maturity, especially when the time
came to make the final cuts and edits to the wall text.
"They got very attached to their images and their
words, but they were very gracious about it
all," she said.
Liberty Tillemann-Dick, one of the students in the
class and a junior majoring in the history of
science and technology, said that the experience was
exhilarating and a highlight of her academic
career to date.
"We really got this feeling of celebrity and being
grown up, not just being taught," said
Tillemann-Dick. "We got to work with all these wonderful
professionals at the Walters and the Space
Telescope Science Institute, someone like Mario Livio, who
I hear all the time on NPR. I had this lovely
conversation with him in the hall, politely arguing with
him which pictures had real artistic merit and
deserved to be in the show. The opportunity to work with
people in all these fields was just amazing."
Tillemann-Dick said that the experience has encouraged
her to consider a career in the museum
field, and that she appreciates the opportunity she was
"I'm certainly grateful to the Space Telescope and the
Walters for being so gracious and letting
us into their spaces and giving us their time and energy.
They were really kind to us and very obliging,"
As for the final result, Tillemann-Dick said that
But is it art?
Tilghman said the jury is still out.
"[The Hubble images] certainly do a lot of the work of
art, even if they are not art objects," he
said. "What they do is help people make sense of very
difficult, mind-boggling concepts of space and
time and the origins of the universe. They take the
unknowable and make them concrete: define them
just a little bit."
To illustrate his point, he gestures to one of the
gallery's images of a Hubble deep space field,
dotted with thousands of stars and numerous galaxies. "And
this is just a tiny portion of the sky," he
said. "You look at that and think: There is no way we are
Mapping the Cosmos will be on display through July 27.
The Maps: Finding Our Place in the
World exhibition begins in March. For more information on
the Walters and museum hours, go to