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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 11, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 21
The Universe, And All Its Beauty

Elizabeth Rodini and three of the student curators — Lia Klofas, Liberty Tillemann-Dick and Whitney Shaffer — in the Walters Art Museum with images from 'Mapping the Cosmos.'
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Student-curated exhibit at Walters Art Museum shows off Hubble images

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

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 Johns Hopkins' 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 beauty.

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 universe?

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 exhibit.

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 10.

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 effort."

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 given.

"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," she said.

As for the final result, Tillemann-Dick said that "it's beautiful."

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 alone."

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


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