Universiteit Leiden

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Experience one hundred years of astronomy at the Old Observatory

How big is the universe? How do stars form and evolve? And does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? These main questions in astronomy are the themes of the new exhibition Above & Beyond, which was created in honour of the hundredth anniversary of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The exhibition at the Old Observatory takes visitors on a (space) journey through the astronomical milestones of the past century.

From kitchen to exhibition

The industrial-looking cellar of the Old Observatory is located directly under the director's former rooms. In the past, the kitchen staff used to prepare meals here, but nowadays it serves as a visitor centre for the Old Observatory. The atmospheric room, with its centuries-old brick walls, is filled with illuminated panels with colourful images of the universe.

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On a voyage of discovery

Upon entering the exhibition, the silver timeline on the floor is immediately noticeable: it meanders along all the parts and forms the backbone of the exhibition. The timeline takes you to an open space, where the beginning and end of the exhibition come together. On the right you can see infographics with the (very little) knowledge of the universe in 1919, on the left you can see the enormous amount of knowledge that we have a hundred years later. As a visitor you can hardly fail to marvel at the knowledge of the universe that mankind has acquired in those hundred years.

Imagine yourself on the moon

If you follow the timeline carefully, you will find a luminous panel that fills the entire wall. This shows all space missions in chronological order, starting with the Sputnik in 1957. Opposite the timeline hangs a somewhat strange octagonal shape. After bending and stepping into it, you are surrounded by eight photos of the first moon landing, including the iconic photo with a flapping American flag. Here you imagine yourself to be on the moon, and literally follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong: in the middle of the octagon, on the floor, is his moon footprint.

A visitor looks at the timeline of all space missions

Looking back in time

A little further on there are old black-and-white photographs of various space travellers, including the chimpanzee Ham and Valentina Tereshkova: the first woman in space. The silver timeline then takes you through a tunnel of discoveries, including a beautiful image of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The galaxies in this image are no less than 12 billion light years away from us. The light from these galaxies has taken 12 billion years to reach us, which means that you look back 12 billion years in time. 

Visitors view the black-and-white photos

The exhibition was co-designed by Leiden astronomers Ewine van Dishoeck, Pedro Russo and Jorge Rivero, with contributions from Frans Snik, Henk Hoekstra, Dirk van Delft and Jarle Brinchmann. The official opening took place on Wednesday 10 April, preceded by the symposium Making Sense of the Universe. Here NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld, author Maria Popova and professor Ewine van Dishoeck spoke about humanity trying to make sense of the universe.

The Molecule Hunter

After the tunnel, a striking metal object in a showcase attracts attention. The silver-coloured object looks solid and somewhat resembles a printer – it's the HIFI instrument from the ESA’s Herschel spacecraft. The prototype, it says on a text board, is designed to determine the chemical composition of gas and dust clouds in space. Hence, it has the appropriate nickname Molecule Hunter. After taking a look at the future (are we ever going to hike on Mars?), the exhibition concludes with a reflection. After a hundred years of astronomy, we know a lot, but there's still even more we don't know. Is there more than one universe? Will humanity become an interplanetary civilisation? Will we ever encounter extraterrestrial life? Perhaps, in a hundred years' time, we will know the answers.   

The Molecule Hunter in a showcase

Visitor information

  • Admission: The exhibition can be reached via the Hortus botanicus Leiden. You only pay the entrance fee for the Hortus.
  • When: Every Saturday and Sunday from 10:00-18:00.
  • Tip: Book a guided tour! There are three guided tours per day, which includes a visit to the telescopes.

Read more visitor information.

Text: Bryce Benda
Video: Sean van der Steen
Pictures: Monique Shaw

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