The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2011

Hop the Thirteenth - Even those in a conference can look at the stars

Toner M. Stevenson, Observing the Less Visible: Alice Takes on Astronomy

Women's participation in astronomy has remained rather invisible. Between 1898-1903, Marguerite Phillips was employed to photograph the night sky. The project of the Carte du Ciel & Astrographic Catalogue, forced telescopes and astronomers, to re-engage with the night sky. Australian Observatories played a huge role in this history, but this has long been interpreted in a very masculine, scientific form, in which the role of women and native knowledges have been sidelined.

Eighteen observatories originally ascribed to the Carte du Ciel project, the aim of which was to follow in the tradition of Western map-making. Maps can introduce modes of control which are not possible without them - through the map, we can come to control and catalogue the night sky, and develop and reinforce specialist knowledge. But this performance of knowledge occurs at a distance. It's intention was to enable future astronomers to compare epochs, and so create a cumulative map over time. Individual observatories were participants in this network. The colonial observatories were subject to the control of the Royal Observatory in London, but the director of the Australian Observatories, Henry Chamberlain Russell, bypassed these gatekeepers and worked to give power, equipment and independence to the Sydney and Melbourne observatories.

Women have been involved in astronomy in every culture, in every era. But they have been invisible. Even in the 1980s, there were many perceived limits on what they could do, and science was still perceived as a predominantly male preserve. Observatory spaces were often heavily genderised, having to be modified to accomodate 'feminine' needs. Whist Williamina Fleming, at Harvard College, was able to interact on a more equal level with the male participants, but in the pacific islands this was not the case. Women were employed in the Australian, and Scottish, Observatories of the Carte du Ciel, for a salary no man would have accepted. Extentions were built for the work of the women, encouraging the seperation of the genders.

Women were engaged in the repetitive task of measuring and comparing the astrographic plates, some of which could contain over five thousand stars. Yet there remains little evidence of their presence in the official dialogue. But the spaces, and the work of the people inbetween the collection and final interpretation, were the places in which meaning was developed and figured. The final astrographic catalogues were published in 1971, and after eighty-four years, the Carte was never finished. But traces remain in the site, and the material space. There remains the opportunity for the women to return. Australia still has one of the lowest female populations of astrophysics in the world, and women still, as a whole, tend not to be well represented in the scientific world. Whatever the underlying reasons for this, the sites which remain from the Carte then, and its material culture, problematise the role of the invisible and the visible. Through their strange visible invisibility and invisible-visibility, can show evidence of the past role of women, and perhaps that they can, and should, still and in the future, chase the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole, and be able to see the night sky in all its shining glory.

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