The Space Age and the Digital Age: Linking Museum Exhibits and the College Classroom
The Space Age and the Digital Age: Linking Museum Exhibits and the College Classroom

The Space Age and the Digital Age: Linking Museum Exhibits and the College Classroom

View of the exhibit space and the "Explorer's Legacy" exhibition.
View of the exhibit space and the “Explorer’s Legacy” exhibition.

When I first came to the University of Iowa, the north lobby of the Main Library was a drab, dated, and draughty area that had little sense of identity or purpose. It was used to display holdings from the library’s Special Collections, but students passed through in a hurry, on their way to classes, coffee, and maybe even to check out some books. Now, after almost three years of renovations, the old lobby has been transformed by the library’s staff into a much more welcoming gallery and exhibit space, one that invites the visitor to linger.

I was really excited to get to explore the new gallery and its first exhibition, “Explorer’s Legacy”, and to see how this new space has the potential to blend digital humanities, archival research, public engagement, and the hands-on teaching of history. Teaching history at the college level is less and less confined to teaching in the college classroom—or rather, there’s an increasing recognition that there are multiple places on the college campus and in the wider community that can function as a history classroom.

Plus, hey, outer space: exciting even to a medievalist.

Just in case you hadn't figured that one out. UI Special Collections RG99.0142.
Just in case you hadn’t figured that one out. UI Special Collections RG99.0142.

James Van Allen

The inaugural exhibition focuses on the career of renowned UI astrophysicist James Van Allen (1914-2006), particularly his work on the Explorer missions. A native of the state, Van Allen earned his MS (’36) and PhD (’39) here before beginning his long career as one of the university’s most distinguished faculty members. In the 1950s Van Allen and a team of his graduate students created a set of scientific instruments that were launched with the first US satellites to reach space: Explorer 1 and Explorer 3. The data collected on these missions led to the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

Though Van Allen is most well known for his involvement with the Explorer missions, he was the principal investigator for scientific investigations on no fewer than 24 Earth satellites and planetary missions, and discovered one of Saturn’s moons in 1979. That’s the kind of legacy that gets you a building named for you on the UI campus.

Bounding Space…

The exhibition contains many of the elements which you might expect to find in a museum: photographs and maps, physical objects and labels, and there’s a lot to linger over. But for me, one of the most evocative parts of the exhibition is its audio element: the visitor moves through the space to the soundtrack of the low rumble of static and frequent, steady pings. This is the sound of the Van Allen Explorer tapes, of data beamed back to Earth from the satellites and stored on hundreds of reel-to-reel magnetic audio tapes. The preservation and digitisation of these tapes was a difficult and expensive challenge, but Special Collections staff were able to save this unique part of the Explorer mission’s historical legacy.

Close your eyes and listen for a moment, and you’re transported to a place very far from Iowa. It’s a wonderful way to create a connection between a visitor to the exhibition and the sense of discovery which no doubt Van Allen and his team experienced. There’s no seeming pattern to the sounds (at least to this non-physicist) but you can’t help straining to detect one anyway. Nowadays, it’s easy to call up sophisticated visualizations of the Van Allen Belts online without ever leaving the comfort of your own living room, but there’s a visceral quality to standing in a quiet, shared place and listening to the dawn of the Space Age that just can’t be beat.

That, to me, is one of the most appealing aspects of the digital humanities—the ways in which it lets me, as a scholar and a teacher, create whole new sensory experiences for people. History becomes more than a series of dead letters, pinned to a page. It’s got a rhythm you have to learn to listen to.

Each dot on the globe represents a place associated with Van Allen's experiments.
Each dot on the globe represents a place associated with Van Allen’s experiments.

… and Expanding the Classroom’s Scope

The exhibit also ties into larger archival and historical projects here at UI. There’s the Explorer’s Legacy website, which combines long-form historical narrative with some of the archival materials relating to Van Allen held in Special Collections. It fleshes out the story of the Explorer missions for those whose appetites have been whetted by the exhibit, and would make great reading in the history classroom.

But even more useful for those of us who want our students to get to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of historical research are the archival materials related to Van Allen and the Explorer Project which have been uploaded to DIY History. DIY History is a crowd-sourced transcription project which was launched in 2011 by the UI’s Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, which helps to make large quantities of digitised primary sources searchable and therefore accessible to the general public.

For most students, the scholarly labour which goes into producing editions of texts is invisible, but primary source documents don’t magically appear in sourcebooks or on websites. They are the product of hours of transcription and translation, of puzzling over sometimes illegible handwriting, of figuring out the most accurate way to translate an idiom from Latin, of compiling the footnotes and other scholarly apparatus that help to provide a fuller picture of a document’s historical context.

When students are encouraged to contribute to DIY History, they’re not only furthering the reach of these archival resources, they’re also acting as historians—practising the kinds of skills that historians find invaluable in their everyday work.

(Not to mention that this medievalist is pleased that even in the Space Age, knowing how to read cursive is still a very useful skill.)

“Explorer’s Legacy” runs from now until April 8, and is free and open to the public. Gallery hours:

Monday-Saturday: 10am—5pm
Sunday: 11am—5pm

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