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Map Collection Exhibition Focuses on Celestial Maps

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Carel Allard, Planisphaerii coelestis hemisphaerium meridionale (Amsterdam: Covens & Mortier, ca. 1730)

December 7, 2009 – In less than four months, from November 30, 1609 to March 2, 1610, Galileo made observations about the cosmos – that the Milky Way contained thousands of previously unknown stars, that the moon has widely varied topography and that four large moons orbited around Jupiter, which itself was in motion – that would profoundly alter the way humanity viewed its place in the universe. Four centuries later, a new exhibition at the Harvard Map Collection celebrates his discoveries, and explores their continuing impact on the worlds of science, philosophy and religion.

The exhibition, “Mapping Discoveries in the Heavens and Controversies on Earth,” opens later this month, and is timed to coincide with Galileo’s first “observing campaign” and the publication of Sidereus Nuncius, the text which laid out his findings.

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“The universe was never the same after Galileo published what he was seeing through his telescope,” guest curator and Boston University Professor of Astronomy and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Michael Mendillo said. “This exhibition will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of Galileo’s book and its impact.”

Organized by Mendillo and Joseph Garver, Interim Co-Head of Harvard Map Collection and Reference Librarian, the exhibition will include more than three dozen items, including rare astronomical maps and charts from Mendillo’s own collection, the Mendillo Collection of Antiquarian Astronomical Maps and Charts, which is coordinated by the Boston University Art Gallery. The exhibition will also feature rare texts from Houghton Library’s collections, several items from the Map Collection and two prints from the collections of the Fogg Art Museum, Mendillo said.

Published in 1610, Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius was among the first scientific work to make wide use of images to enhance the impact of its findings. To demonstrate that impact, the exhibition explores several themes, including the way Galileo used images to support his findings and the question of who would name new constellations introduced based on those findings. Other topics explored include the friction between science and religion exemplified by the 17th century effort to replace the classic names of constellations with Biblical names, and the ways in which Galileo’s findings influenced artists’ representations of the moon.

“When I learned about Michael Mendillo's unique collection of astronomical charts and maps, I invited him to curate an exhibit at Harvard that would feature his own maps, and would draw upon the rich collections of Harvard College Library,” Garver said. “This collaboration has been a rewarding experience in many respects for us in the Map Collection. Over the last few months, we have all learned to look up much more often. Our universe has expanded.”

Mapping Discoveries in the Heavens and Controversies on Earthwill be on display at the Harvard Map Collection from December 9 through March 30, 2010. Hours, Directions