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Washburn Observatory        

Washburn Observatory, UW Madison
Washburn Observatory, 1880 (ca.), Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 26709.
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Situated at the summit of Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Washburn Observatory was established in 1878 due to 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. This sum represented a seventh of the University's state-funded annual budget. Over time, Washburn personally donated more than $65,000 for the construction and equipping of the Observatory.

Located 100 feet above Lake Mendota to the north, on a ridge that is still the site of ancient Indian effigy mounds, 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.
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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. Washburn Observatory dome continues to be open for public viewing through the telescope two evenings of each month; the rest of the observatory building is occupied by the University's Institute for Research in the Humanities. Steps lead up to the dome 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.
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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. Intrigued by twentieth-century studies demonstrating that star positions are one of several orienting cues for bird migration, Glowacki created a sculptural installation that evokes the wonder of investigations of nature. Near the observatory, visitors to the exhibition may encounter 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.

Like many of her sculptures that make reference to "cabinets of curiosities"—nineteenth century repositories of scientific instruments and artifacts of exploration—Martha Glowacki views the Washburn Observatory itself as a kind of cabinet of curiosities. It has been little changed since its construction and holds its original scientific instrument. In combination with the models and devices of Starry Transit: An Installation by Martha Glowacki, it serves as a cabinet of references to the history of scientific investigation.