Peer Through the Glare to Glimpse the Night Sky in New Smithsonian Exhibition

‘Lights Out’ explores how ecology and culture revolve around the night and how light pollution is threatening this essential darkness

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At the National Museum of Natural History, downward-directed ramp and rail lighting keep light out of the sky. Smithsonian Institution

When the sun sets each day, things seem to quiet down. But the outside world is far from still when the lights go out. On land, nocturnal critters like scorpions and dung beetles scuttle out of their hiding spots as kangaroo rats and black-footed ferrets scurry about. Bats, owls and moths flutter through the night sky. Below the waves, coral reefs release plumes of eggs and deep-sea inhabitants like squid and lantern fish rise from the depths to feed.

For thousands of years, humans have also partaken in the night. Around the Arctic Circle, where winter nights can stretch weeks, Indigenous communities have long used the stars and the flicker of the northern lights to guide their movements. These celestial bodies also shaped their culture by inspiring mythology and influencing the art they created.

Gwich’in artist Margaret Nazon’s “Milky Way, Starry Night # 2” was inspired by the swirling galaxies seen through the Hubble Telescope and created specially for “Lights Out.” After the exhibition, it will join the museum’s permanent collection. Art by Margaret Nazon, photo by Smithsonian Institution

But the clear night sky that life has revolved around for millions of years is beginning to fade. For the past 80,000 years, humans have used fire and other methods to illuminate the darkness. In the last century, light from ever growing cities has put vast amounts of artificial illumination into the night sky, creating a haze that obscures the stars.

The National Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition, “Lights Out: Recovering Our Night Sky,” lets visitors peer through the dimming darkness to see how light pollution is affecting life around the world. The exhibition, which opens today, features stunning photographs of the night sky from around the world, interactive displays and videos, and specimens and objects from the Smithsonian’s vast collections. These range from fireflies and bats to Indigenous artwork and historic light bulbs.

“Since the dawn of humanity, we have been able to look up at the night sky and reflect on the wonder and mysteries of the universe, a powerful experience that many diverse cultures have celebrated and held sacred,” said Stephen Loring, co-curator of the exhibition and an archaeologist with the museum’s Arctic Studies Center. “Our exhibition will ask visitors to stop and consider what a disappearing night sky means to them and what they can do to help restore it for themselves and others.”

The museum’s newest exhibition, “Lights Out,” will be open until December 2025. Brittany M. Hance, James D. Tiller; Phillip R. Lee, and James Di Loreto, Smithsonian Institution

The exhibition explores the effects of disappearing darkness worldwide. As they walk through the darkened hallway, visitors' eyes are drawn to the sleek information panels and display cases that burst with color. “I was hoping that this exhibit’s aesthetic would feel like the night sky, but with all the colors that we may forget exist in it,” said Shannon Willis, a member of the museum’s exhibition team who designed the space. “I knew that I would use traditional blue tones, but the sky is also black, pink, purple, yellow, and other bright and beautiful colors that I wanted to capture throughout the design.”

On this vibrant canvas unfold the many ways light pollution impacts nature. All manner of creatures are affected by artificial light, especially aerial creatures that prefer to fly by night. Millions of birds die during their annual migration each year due to artificial lights. The brightness disorients them from their routes, which are carefully calibrated using the light of the moon and stars, leading them directly into danger. Insects are not faring any better — more than half of all species are nocturnal and their lifestyles are being disrupted by the glow of artificial lights. Light pollution is one of a number of environmental threats causing what scientists are dubbing the “Insect Apocalypse.’’

During migratory season, volunteers with the Lights Out DC program scour the sidewalks downtown in the early mornings to collect injured or dead birds. The birds they find end up in the museum’s collection, including these twenty specimens on display in “Lights Out.” Smithsonian Institution

Light pollution also impacts ecosystems in more surprising ways. Bats, among the most iconic nocturnal critters, are vital cogs of their ecosystems because they keep insects in check and pollinate more than 500 species of plants that provide products like mangoes, bananas and tequila. But light pollution makes it more difficult for bats to pinpoint prey and flowers in need of pollination, sending ripples through both the entire ecosystem and the fruit stand. Higher levels of environmental light can also throw breeding cycles out of whack and disrupt the movements of animals like sea turtle hatchlings and deep-sea shrimp and squid.

30% of vertebrate animals, including this Australian green tree frog (left), are active after dark. Roughly 60% of invertebrates, including these Japanese fireflies (right), are nocturnal. Copyright / Alamy Stock Photo (left image) and Courtesy Tsuneaki Hiramatsu, CC-BY 4.0 (right image)

The impacts of light pollution are also being felt in the human world. For millennia, humans have used the stars to navigate across oceans and continents and pass down their mythologies through the generations.

But many people today have trouble simply seeing any stars at night. According to current estimates, more than 80% of people live under some degree of light-polluted skies. The problem is particularly glaring in North America, where 80% of the continent’s population is unable to see the Milky Way galaxy in the night sky above them.

However, this darkness is not lost for good. “Lights Out” offers visitors the opportunity to learn how they can mitigate light pollution in their own neighborhoods. The exhibition’s displays outline the “Five Principles of Responsible Outdoor Lighting,” developed by the International Dark-Sky Association and the Illuminating Engineering Society, which present solutions for common poor-lighting practices. Photographs of entire communities that have adopted these “dark sky” lighting practices show how individual changes scale up when people work together.

“Lights Out” displays several cultural objects with relationships to the night sky, including these masks crafted by Alaska’s Yup’ik Indigenous Community. Similar masks are integral to the community’s mid-winter celebrations and often feature iconography of the moon and stars. Brittany M. Hance, James D. Tiller; Phillip R. Lee, and James Di Loreto, Smithsonian Institution

And all museum visitors will be able to learn how they can help. According to Jill Johnson, the exhibition’s developer, the exhibit has been designed for visitors that learn through a multisensory experience, especially for a blind and low vision audience. “These include tactile exhibit elements, audio description, sounds, and sonification of data from the night sky so that all visitors can experience a starry dark sky night,” she said.

Altogether, the team behind the exhibit hopes that museum visitors will leave with a lasting sense of why they should preserve the darkness.  “We hope that visitors will see how growing, pervasive light pollution is limiting our ability to observe the universe around us,” said guest exhibition co-curator Kim Arcand, a visualization scientist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. “We want people to want to take action to preserve natural dark skies.”

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