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MOA finds inspiration in the stars

By Brian Paterson

Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. (Submitted Photo)

Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. (Submitted Photo)

There is something fundamentally human about staring at the night sky.

Whether it’s looking up on the Big Dipper or the Crux, stargazing connects humanity not only around the globe – but across time.

It is appropriate then, that the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia – an institution dedicated to preserving, sharing, and experiencing world cultures – will host a special evening dedicated to starry expanses.

This Saturday, Blackout: Night Sky Festival will take over the museum and its grounds with a kaleidoscopic immersion in art, science, story telling, and stargazing.

“It’s going to be an ethereal night. It’s all about finding new things in the darkness,” says April Liu, MOA’s recently appointed Curator of Public Programs and Engagement. “We want to bring together both art and science in thinking about the dark skies.”

Beginning at 5 p.m., visitors will arrive to find the museum transformed: A DJ will be spinning ambient downtempo, a bar and barbecue will serve up refreshment, and all manner of performers and professors will be on hand sharing academic and artistic insights.

The richness and diversity of contributors assembled by Liu are staggering: First Nations artist Margaret Grenier will share Indigenous stories of the night sky, astrophysicist Don Kurtz will dish on the New Keplerian Revolution, Secret Lantern Society will host a hands-on workshop, and an ambitious undertaking will unveil a new multimedia creation.

“As part of MOA’s endeavor to work with Indigenous communities, we’re creating a collaborative art piece,” Liu says. “We’ve given them an entire star map of the Northern hemisphere, studied Indigenous constellations, then had them come up with their own constellations and stories.”

“This will be one of the evenings key presentations,” she says. “The new constellations will be projected onto the shell beach behind the museum – and visitors will be able to walk through them. It will almost be like the sky is reflected on the earth.”

The evening culminates by taking in the spectacular starry night sky on MOA’s ocean-view bluff. There, visitors will be greeted by UBC Astronomy Club, whose rare array of high power telescopes will share glimpses of Saturn, Jupiter, Lagoon Nebula, and more, all underscored by live and electronic music.

Liu’s earliest inspiration for the night sky festival came from its co-hosts: the UBC Astronomy Club. Early in her tenure at MOA, Liu learned university astronomers had been heading to the museum bluffs to watch the skies for many years, due to its darkness.

“We want more locals to come to the museum, but UBC’s distance from the city can be a barrier,” Liu says. “So I thought, ‘how do we turn this distance into an advantage?’ That’s how the dark sky idea came about. To see the Perseid meteor showers, you’ve got two options: You can drive three hours into the mountains – or join us here at one of the darkest spots in the city.”

Blackout does not mark the culmination of MOA’s night sky ambitions – but the beginning. The museum is currently in the process of applying to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada to become designated as an urban star park.

“Vancouver is expanding development at breakneck speed – and our night sky continues to disappear. Unless you designate a space as having value for what it is, it is in danger of being taken away,” Liu says. “When I first started working here, I was struck by the wild space around the museum. (Achieving this designation) would be a milestone step in keeping the space wild.”

Ultimately, Liu hopes Blackout will not only allow visitors to feel a connection with the night sky and wild, natural spaces – but with their own selves.

“I am really passionate about what the skies hold in terms of inspiration in our daily lives,” she says. “My guiding purpose is to build a space where other people feel that same creativity: To reignite a passion for the night skies. To see it as a creative space.”

“It’ll be a dreamy place, I think.”

Black: Night Sky Festival happens August 12 from 5 p.m. until midnight. More info at moa.ubc.ca.