Astronomer described exhibition as 'magical'

A Californian astronomer has described an exhibition at The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre, inspired by her work, as ‘magical’. 

Aparna Venkatesan, astronomer from the University of San Francisco, and John Barentine, astronomer and science communicator at Dark Sky Consulting, coined a new term ‘noctalgia’ to describe the grief felt at losing dark skies due to light pollution. 

Noctalgia literally translated means ‘sky grief’ and is the name of the exhibition – Noctalgia: Dark Skies Matter – currently on display at The Sill: Landscape Discovery Centre, commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of Northumberland International Dark Sky Park.  

Aparna made the special trip to understand how the idea of noctalgia had inspired the exhibition. 

The exhibition is the creation of North-East artist, Bethan Maddocks. Bethan discovered the term in a science journal while she was researching for the commission.  

For Bethan, noctalgia captured ideas of loss and grief that the night sky as we have known it, is disappearing.   

She said, “It is a poetic word, and it links to nostalgia, which a lot of people feel when they think of the night sky. They may reflect on the numbers of moths and stars we were able to see as children, that are not as visible now.” 

The exhibit is based on an orrery. An 18th century, clockwork device to help understand the solar system. Bethan was fascinated by the circular motion, and it made her think about the night ecology and how animals and plants rely on the night sky to breed, hunt, or pollinate.  

The resulting installation presents delicate papercuts of creatures, and objects of the night sky rotating in a circular motion.  These include moths, hares, various species of birds and meteor showers. As well as man-made objects such as satellites, and even a space pack, referencing NASA astronauts losing a toolkit in space recently.  Bethan shines lights onto these moving papercuts and the resulting shadows extend the artwork so that shadows can be seen dancing onto a cloud sculpture and the walls and ceiling of the gallery. 

Responding to Bethan’s work, Aparna said: “It’s just so magical. When one does scientific work, you don’t really know who it’s reaching or who will read it. It’s just incredibly moving that despite all the crisis and trauma in our world right now, people still care about the sky. And I’m so moved to know that Bethan created this installation to honour the anniversary of the dark sky park but also to connect to this idea of shared grief at losing our dark skies’”. 

Speaking about the purpose of exhibitions at The Sill, Sarah Burn, Head of Engagement at Northumberland National Park Authority said:  

“At the National Park, we offer engagement programmes that foster connections between people and the landscape, enabling a deeper understanding of the intricate relationship between people, nature and place. Noctalgia has united people of all ages and abilities under Northumberland’s awe-inspiring dark skies, encouraging appreciation for their significance in both the natural world and for our physical and mental wellbeing. 

“The Sill’s exhibitions exemplify our commitment to inclusivity and to inspire action that will ensure Northumberland’s dark skies continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.” 

Noctalgia: Dark Skies Matter opened in December 2023, on the tenth anniversary of Northumberland International Dark Sky Park. The park’s pristine dark skies have brought wonder to thousands of visitors through dark sky experiences, and £25m per year into the local economy.  

As well as the exhibition, the Northumberland International Dark Sky Partnership, commissioned a film that talks about the importance of the dark skies and what needs to be done to protect them for the future. 

Noctalgia: Dark Skies Matter runs until 10 March, is free to view and is open to the public seven days a week at The Sill: Landscape Discovery Centre. 

Video of Aparna responding to the exhibition.