Skip to content
Washburn Observatory, UW Madison
Washburn Observatory, 1880 (ca.), Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 26709.
Show a larger view of this picture

Martha Glowacki chose Washburn Observatory as the site for her MMoCA exhibition, Starry Transit, for its significance in the history of star and space investigation. Situated at the summit of Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Washburn Observatory was established in 1878 due to the efforts of former Governor Cadwallader C. Washburn who determined that $3000 of state monies be set aside each year for three years for its creation. Located 100 feet above Lake Mendota to the north, the Observatory was equipped with a 15.6 inch refractor telescope, the third largest in the United States at the time.

Washburn Observatory, UW Madison
Washburn Observatory, 1880 (ca.), Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 26709.
Show a larger view of this picture

Commencing with more than forty years of visual astronomy and evolving in 1922 to photoelectric astronomy (measuring star light with electronic detectors), the Observatory functioned as a center for research and for student study until 1958, when the University constructed a new observatory fifteen miles west of Madison. Since that time, the dome and the telescope have been open for public viewing two evenings of each month, and the rest of the observatory building is occupied by the University's Institute for Research in the Humanities. Visitors climb into the dome of the building where the telescope magnifies the moon, planets, double stars, and star clusters at 500 times the image seen with the naked eye.

Effigy Mounds
Two ancient Woodland Indian effigy mounds embellish the landscape near Washburn Observatory, on the grounds of University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the foreground is a water spirit mound, its bilateral shape delineated by melting snow. A bird mound lies between the telephone pole and tree, facing away from the viewer. Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 5569.
Show a larger view of this picture

Near the observatory are two Native American effigy mounds, a bird and a water spirit, that indicate that the Washburn hill has long been a site for observation of natural phenomena and for celebrating human connections to the natural world.