New Shanghai museum looks to the heavens

By Xing Yi in Shanghai | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-07-26 07:59
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Dong Shuchang, a photographer, performs a somersault under the theater dome on July 17 after one of his astronomy photos was displayed at the museum. GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

Three displays

Touring the main building, visitors can gain a thorough understanding of the universe through three main exhibitions-Home, Cosmos and Odyssey. They can learn about ancient Chinese astronomy at a themed display, theories about the heavens, reports of comets being sighted, and observation instruments.

A 17-meter-diameter model of Earth beaming out a pale blue light attracts visitors entering the Home exhibition through a dark tunnel. Alongside this, a model of the moon floats in the air. The dim light in the exhibition hall also gives visitors the impression that they are viewing Earth from space.

Inside "Earth" is a planetarium decorated as a lawn on a summer night, visitors lie down to enjoy views of the starry night sky projected on the dome.

Exhibits near "Earth" inform visitors about other planets in the solar system. The meteorite section deserves special mention, as it features 70 meteorites collected from around the world, including a 21.4-kilogram specimen of the only one witnessed in Shanghai's history, which fell on Changxing Island in 1964.

The Cosmos exhibition is reached by leaving the Home display and walking through a long "interstellar" passage featuring an immersive and interactive art projection of a river of stars that flows with people's movements.

Lin Qing, director of the museum's research center and the main curator of the exhibitions, said the Cosmos display was the hardest to present, as much in the universe is still unknown, even among scientists.

"After numerous discussions and brainstorming sessions, we decided to explain the basic concept of time and space and the fundamental theories about the universe to visitors, and also tell them that one day a visitor could have the answers to unsolved questions," Lin said.

Instead of highlighting straight facts, this exhibition poses a number of questions, such as What is the universe? How big is it? What is the essence of gravity? How is distance between stars measured? What is dark matter? The answers are presented through interactive exhibits to make it easier for people to understand them.

A short time travel drama featuring British astronomer Isaac Newton meeting Albert Einstein, the German-born theoretical physicist, is performed live by actors to tell visitors about the differing views of classical physics and the theory of relativity on the universe. A generator creates a whirlpool to imitate a black hole, while rays of projected light, which bend when visitors approach them, show the effects of gravity.

Odyssey, the third exhibition, features a historical narrative to guide visitors through the advancement of knowledge about the universe and efforts in space exploration. The exhibits include publications by Claudius Ptolemy, the Egyptian astronomer, mathematician and geographer of Greek descent, Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer, mathematician and astrologer, and Newton.

The exhibition culminates in a section on China's most recent space projects, featuring full-scale models of the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) lunar rover, Tianhe (Harmony of the Heavens) core module and the Chang'e-5 spacecraft, along with a 9-milligram lunar sample brought back by the Chang'e-5 mission.

Xin Ge, deputy director of the museum, said: "We don't want our exhibitions to be like dull textbooks. We have focused on creating an exciting experience for visitors so that they'll leave the museum with more curious minds about space and a love for astronomy."

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