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Griffith Observatory Exhibits: A Short Tour

These images and the video below give you a taste of Griffith Observatory's exhibition. With the exception of the streaming video, all images are clickable links to larger versions. (All still images shown here are copyright 2006, Carolyn Collins Petersen.)

More information about the creation of the exhibits appears here.

You can also download a paper (in PDF form) that discusses the "lessons learned" in creating the Griffith exhibits. It was co-written by Carolyn Collins Petersen and Mark A. Pine (Griffith Observatory Deputy Director) and presented at the 2007 Communicating Astronomy with the Public meeting, held in Athens, Greece.

LA's Hood Ornament

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory re-opened to the public on November 3, 2006, after a renovation project that took nearly five years to complete. It is located in Griffith Park, just north of downtown Los Agneles, on the same side of the Hollywood Hills as the famous Hollywood sign. From its terraces you can look south toward downtown Los Angeles.

The Observatory features a solar telescope as well as a night-time observing telescope, more than 160 exhibits, a planetarium show, a gift shop, and a cafe (with food catered by Wolfgang Puck). It's a must-see for anyone visiting the Los Angeles area, and has one of the most breathtaking views in the world.

The exhibits are housed in both the west and east wings of the main building, as well as in a newly added room that sits below the grassy lawn of the observatory. From the lawn you can see the Hollywood sign, east to Pasadena and the northeast to the San Gabriel mountains. The west view on a clear day lets you see all the way to the shorelines of Santa Monica and Long Beach.

CCP-Big Picture primary

Carolyn Collins Petersen and Big Picture Primary

The Big Picture Primary panel is the main introduction to the Big Picture, an astronomical image that shows an area of sky in the constellation Virgo.

It is accompanied by a number of explanatory panels, telescopes, and a video called "The Depth of Space." In addition to writing the panels, I also wrote the script for the video; the visuals were produced by the Griffith Observatory Graphics Staff and composited and produced (with narration and music) by RBH MultiMedia, of Dobbs Ferry, NY.

Day and Night

Day and Night

Visitors always want to know things like how day and night occur on our planet. There are six exhibits at Griffith that answer such basic questions.

Phases of the Moon

Phases of the Moon

Another key exhibit tackles a commonly asked visitor question: what causes the phases of the Moon?

Beyond the visible primary panel

Beyond the Visible

This focuses on wavelengths of light we can and can't see in the electromagnetic spectrum. Each wavelength regime shows us something different about a celestial object.

beyond the visible wayside panel

Beyond the Visible Exhibit

Each circular image in this beautiful exhibit is like a window into another part of the electromagnetic spectrum. We wanted visitors to understand not only what things look like in other wavelengths, but how astronomers can use these wavelengths to probe "unseen" regions our eyes could never detect without help.

The Microwave Universe

Experiencing Microwave Astronomy

As part of the "Beyond the Visible" exhibit, visitors can see what an object looks like in microwave wavelengths.

a look at the visible universe

The Visible-Light Universe

The visible-light universe is the most accessible and is our entry into astronomy. It is what humans observed first using our visible-light-sensitive eyes.

Hall of the Eye primary

The Hall of the Eye

The introductory panel to the Hall of the Eye, where visitors learn about our earliest astronomical instruments, and how they enhanced our vision and extended our view of the cosmos.

California Observers

California Astronomers

California is home to a diverse astronomy community, something we celebrate throughout significant parts of the exhibit program.

Adaptive Optics panel

Adaptive Optics exhibit Wayside Panel

Visitors learn about the advances in observing power that today's astronomers get by using adaptive optics systems.

edge of space primary panel

The Edge of Space

The edge of space lies at the top of Earth's atmosphere. Here we first encounter incoming meteors ("pieces of the sky"), the Sun, and the planets.

The Planets

The Planets

The planets of our solar system are spectacularly displayed in a series of beautiful exhibits. This is the introductory overview panel.

Mercury exhibit


Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and one of the least-explored (along with Pluto) worlds in the solar system. Space artist Adolf Schaller created a space-art view of what it might be like to be on Mercury.

Mars exhibit


Mars has fascinated humans for all our history. This exhibit gives visitors an overview of the Red Planet that we can't get just from gazing at it in the night sky. Adolf Schaller painted the Mars surface scene that gives visitors a small taste of what it might be like to stand on Mars.

Jupiter planet panel

Visiting Jupiter

Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. Its upper cloud decks are depicted here by artist Don Dixon (on the staff of Griffith Observatory).

Neptune planet panel

Stormy Weather on Neptune

Neptune has the most extreme weather in the outer solar system. Here we see the planet depicted by artist Adolph Schaller.

Pluto and the Outer solar system panel

Pluto and Beyond

Pluto continues to fascinate people, and not just because of the saga of its planetary status. Here we visit this icy world in another Schaller painting, and learn more about the outer solar system.

The Sun

The Sun

The Sun is a star, a fact that surprises many visitors. Several exhibits are devoted to studying our nearest star, including a set of solar telescopes that give "real-time" views of the Sun.

Depths of Space-3D

The Depths of Space and Dimensions

It's important for visitors to understand the three-dimensional depth of space.

Depth of Space overview

Depths of Space

The exploration of space opened our eyes to the depths and distances in space. It also changed our view of the stars and planets and galaxies.

Understanding Stars

The Lives of Stars

Every star we see in the sky fits into some category that tells us about its life span and evolution. Here, visitors can explore the lives of the stars.

We are all Starstuff

We Come from the Stars

In every sense, we are of the stars. This exhibit shows visitors how and why we are made of star stuff (a theme also developed in the Samuel Oschin planetarium theater show).

chemical elements

Chemical Elements and the Cosmos

In a sense, the history of the cosmos is also the history of chemical elements that make up all the matter we know. This exhibit takes the visitor on an exploration of elements.

Galaxy evolution

Watching Galaxies Change

Everything in the universe changes. This panel uses the Big Picture to show visitors how galaxies change over time. The Big Picture contains galaxies in many states of evolution and interaction.

Seeing the Big Picture

Seeing the Big Picture

Visitors can study the Big Picture with telescopes inside the building. They can see galaxies of different shapes and ages, all in the same image.

About the Exhibits

These images and the Depth of Space video excerpt are a sampling of the work I did for Griffith Observatory during 2005 and 2006. The underlying theme of the exhibits is "turning visitors into observers." My job was to take fairly complex astronomy concepts and turn them into words accessible to an extremely diverse audience. Griffith has many thousands of visitors each month, and they come from all walks of life, many language groups, and a huge range of educational backgrounds.

The observatory's curatorial team came up with a set of guidelines for the content, plus the idea that the material should be written in the "voice" of the observatory. The idea was to imagine what the observatory would say if it could talk about what celestial sights people have seen through its telescopes and in its exhibits for the past seven-and-a-half decades. I took that idea and ran with it, creating a "character" we came to know as VOTO (Voice of the Observatory), almost as an actor prepares a character for a play or movie. Then I "channeled" for that character in the writing. So, it was ME but it was also VOTO, sharing the secrets of the cosmos with Griffith visitors. A very interesting experience, indeed.

It is a very satisfying feeling to visit the observatory and watch as people experience the exhibits and read the words I created. But, I didn't do it alone. Thanks to the support and help of the Griffith staff, the Friends of the Observatory exhibits manager, and a host of designers at C&G Partners in New York City, the story of the cosmos, "as told" to me by my inner Observatory Voice is now reaching audiences at Griffith Observatory.

Since that time, I have worked on other exhibit and outreach projects, applying lessons learned from the extensive preparation and work I did for Griffith Observatory.