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CAP day 3: Astronomy to Unite!

by Christian Eistrup

19 May 2016

On day 3 of the Communicating Astronomy with the Public (CAP) 2016 conference in Colombia, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) presented its initiative to involve and share astronomy-related artworks from indigenous societies based on the sites of the SKA radio antennas. These artworks feature many ages and many meanings, but common for all: they are inspired by the night sky. The project is a great way of involving indigenous communities around the Earth in the world of astronomy. A way for astronomy and astronomical heritage to go everywhere. And a way to respect the cultural heritage of the societies that are affected by the presence of astronomical sites.

Astronomical observatories are worldwide. People in many areas have observatories, telescopes and antennas decorating their landscapes. Arguably beautiful and fascinating decorations. However, while some see the astronomical equipment in this way, others may feel intrusion. They might feel that their landscape, and maybe even their culturally sacred sites are being changed without their consent.

At the moment, I think the view on astronomy is changing. When the first international observatories started being built on clear sky mountain tops 40-50 years ago, everyone was excited. Local communities were involved, and the new astronomical insight into the Universe grew tremendously. 

In the next 15 years from now, gigantic new telescopes are planned for construction around the world. Once again, the astronomical community attempts to involve local communities and respect the cultural heritage on the sites where telescopes will be build. However, the new equipment will take up new space. And for the indigenous communities, it is a new generation of people that is being involved. A generation of people that may have different experiences and a different worldview than their parents and ancestors, and that may have a different attitude towards the new astronomical initiatives than their parents. In some places, the local communities have actively blocked the construction of new telescopes. Arguing that the new telescopes intrude their sacred sites. 

The situation is neither constructive nor sustainable. Without compromise and mutual understanding of the situation no progress will take place, and the situation may become polarised. This will obviously not benefit anyone. As astronomers we can not assume that the approach we had to engage local communities in the past will work now. We can not assume that indigenous people have the same understanding and excitement about new astronomical telescopes that we have. We can not assume that when building new facilities, local communities will always support it. And we should not force the construction of new telescopes forward, when every step we take generates more and more opposition against the new telescopes, and in turn against the astronomical community.

What we can do, however, is identify and emphasise the common background that we all share: the fascination of the stars. This is and should be the uniting factor between indigenous people and the astronomical community, and it should not be forgotten! I think this is the key to reaching understanding and avoid polarisation. Appreciating the astronomical artworks and traditions of indigenous people, and connecting this cultural heritage to the benefits of new astronomical facilities should be emphasised. The connection between research and astronomical art and fascination should be shared, shown, and even exhibited. The astronomical community should help indigenous people to take pride in their own astronomical art and history. Let them know that they are an important part of the world of astronomy.

Let’s take note of the Shared Sky-project, and use it to promote global understanding and awareness of astronomy. Also for the future! The project will be exhibiting astronomical artworks in different galleries and venues around the world. I can’t wait to visit one!