Rotunda Planetarium

Rotunda Planetarium is an interdisciplinary multimedia project that I created in collaboration with two fellow University of Virginia graduate students, Neal D. Curtis and Sam V. Lemley. Comprising a digital light installation, museum exhibit, and public programming, the project revisited Thomas Jefferson’s proposed but abandoned plans to turn the ceiling of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda building into what would have been the first planetarium in the United States. The project grew out of our research on the history of the Rotunda library and aimed to reinscribe the Rotunda as a space in ways that bring the past into conversation with the present, prompting reflection on the university’s history as well as its future hopes and challenges. Neal, Sam, and I collaborated closely on every aspect of the project, from conducting research to drawing illustrations to inviting guest speakers. Each of us also spearheaded a particular project component: finances and logistics (Neal), computer programming (Sam), and exhibit writing and design (me). I also took the lead on our public programming, which involved developing hands-on educational activities for visitors of different ages as well as collaborating with local artists and science outreach organizations.

Rotunda Planetarium Projection

Background 

In 1819, University of Virginia founder Thomas Jefferson sketched plans for a boom-and-pulley system that would elevate an operator to adjust stars pinned to the interior of the Rotunda’s dome. “The concave ceiling of the Rotunda,” he wrote, “is proposed to be painted sky-blue and spangled with gilt stars in their position and magnitude copied exactly.” As designed, the Rotunda’s ceiling would represent the night sky in real time: mock constellations and planets would trace their annual progress across a wood-and-plaster firmament. Due to ballooning costs, insurmountable technical hurdles, and delays in the Rotunda’s construction, however, Jefferson’s proposed celestial dome was never realized. Instead, the dome room became the university’s first library—the central node of UVA’s early intellectual life. Other rooms in the Rotunda functioned variously as a museum, laboratories, classrooms, and even living space for enslaved workers including Lewis Commodore, who served as the library’s caretaker and assisted with experiments conducted using the Rotunda’s chemical hearth.

Thomas Jefferson’s plans for the planetarium , ca. 1819. Courtesy Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA.

The Installation 

In the fall of 2019, our team installed five laser projectors in the upper gallery of the Rotunda dome room. Each projector is connected to a Raspberry Pi (a small, inexpensive single-board computer) programmed to display a different static image. Together, the projectors create an image of the night sky that encircles the interior of the Rotunda’s dome, playfully reimagining Jefferson’s plans. Laser projection is a non-invasive medium that has enabled us to transform a historic space into a site of engagement and dialogue without permanent physical effects. Our projection seeks to spark wonder and curiosity, leading visitors to view the dome room’s architecture with new eyes while also inviting them to ask questions about the building’s history.

The projected images, which our team created using Adobe Illustrator, are inspired by constellations of the northern hemisphere that appear in John Flamsteed’s star atlas, Atlas Coelestis (London, 1729). While Jefferson never specified a design for his proposed celestial dome, he did purchase a copy of Flamsteed’s work for the university’s library. By projecting versions of Flamsteed’s illustrations, we sought 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 designed our images in black and white—the iconic colors of print—rather than Jefferson’s proposed blue and gold.

One of the Rotunda Planetarium projectors mounted in the upper gallery of the Rotunda.

Programming

In its associated programming and outreach, our project has sought to grapple with the Rotunda’s legacy as a space in which opportunities to learn so often depended on the exclusion and labor of others, including enslaved people who constructed the building and assisted faculty with experiments. Our November 2019 public symposium convened scholars from UVA and elsewhere to take part in interdisciplinary discussions about the history of science, architecture, and race at UVA and in early America at large. Speakers prompted attendees to consider critical questions such as “what can UVA do for inclusivity in its third century” and “how can twenty-first-century buildings recontextualize their spaces to engage their history.” It is our hope that some of the conversations begun under the dome will continue to develop in coming years. 

Our series of free public nights (November 30, December 6, December 19, January 11, February 1) brought together members of the university community and the public to enjoy and learn from the installation, exhibit, and special guest visitors, including violinist and early music specialist David McCormick, who performed at our February 1, 2020 public night, and UVA graduate student-led astronomy education group Dark Skies, Bright Kids. Visitors repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for the project and engaged the three curators (Neal, Sam, and myself) in conversation about our work and the Rotunda’s history. Many Charlottesville-area residents who attended our public nights also shared with us that they had never set foot in the Rotunda before visiting the planetarium. Over 5,000 people attended these public nights.

The projection was also visible to the UVA community during student study hours on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays from 5-10 pm, although the closure of campus due to COVID-19 disrupted these plans. 

A musical performance by violinist David McCormick during a Rotunda Planetarium public night.

The Exhibit

The installation’s companion exhibit (on view November 2019 to February 2020) was located in the historic bookcases that encircle the dome room and housed the Rotunda library’s original collections. Our primary objectives were to make the Rotunda’s history as a site of interactive learning visible, approachable, and imaginatively engaging to students, alumni, and members of the public. We also sought to encourage visitors to draw connections between the Rotunda’s past and present. 

Three thematically organized sections—library, museum, and laboratory—invited visitors to reconsider the Rotunda as a site of interdisciplinary learning and discovery, where astronomy books shared space with travel narratives, surgical dictionaries, and treatises on manure. Thanks to generous loans by local collectors, we were able to display copies of works and scientific instruments originally housed in the Rotunda library alongside high quality reproductions of important founding documents, including Jefferson’s original planetarium sketch. Short, accessible labels contextualized individual artifacts as well as the broader narratives they helped illustrate. The top shelf of each case featured pre-nineteenth-century books arrayed as early UVA students might have seen them, enabling viewers to better imagine how the Rotunda might have looked during its days as a functioning library.

Exhibit case in progress (prior to label installation)

Future Impacts

The projectors we installed in the dome room will remain in place for the foreseeable future. It is our hope that they will not only be used to project our planetarium images for future visitors, but will also be used by other student groups interested in transforming the dome room’s ceiling. To that end, we have designed an open-access manual that will aid future groups in using the technology.