Preserving history at UW observatory

The semimonthly open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington are over for the year. When they resume again in the spring the observatory may include a little more local history. The UW Astronomy Department has recently regained jurisdiction over the one-time office of the late professor after whom the facility is named, and is looking to spruce up the room with historical artifacts and interactive exhibits.

Jacobsen's office

The long-time UW astronomy professor’s name is still on the door of his former office in the namesake Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Efforts are under way to make the office a historical exhibit. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

While Jacobsen’s name remains painted on the door of the office, it had for a number of years been used as a check-in space for custodians university-wide. Occasional efforts over the years to return the office to historical astronomical uses came to naught, according to Dr. Ana Larson, UW lecturer and Jacobsen Observatory director who heads up the public outreach program at the observatory. Recently, Larson said, custodians scored space in the new Paccar Hall nearby and observatory buffs swooped in to return the Jacobsen office to astronomical uses.

With the space in hand, the big stumbling block for turning it into an historical exhibit is cash. Larson figures the budget for the project is at about -$200; she recently purchased an old oak desk for $70 out-of-pocket and installed it in the office. It is certainly not Jacobsen’s desk, but fits with the period. A mini-exhibit is already up in the office, including an old briefcase of Jacobsen’s, a star-atlas notebook, and an armillary on the desk.

TJO desk

A small exhibit with a few artifacts of Theodor Jacobsen is already up in the late professor’s former office. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It seems most fitting to set up a tribute to Jacobsen. For nearly four decades he was the only professor in the UW astronomy department, which he served from 1928 until his retirement in 1971. Retirement didn’t mean that Jacobsen quit working. He published his final book just a few years before his death in 2003 at age 102.

The observatory already is listed on the state register of historical buildings. It is the second oldest structure on the UW campus, and was built in 1895 with sandstone blocks left over from the construction of Denny Hall. The observatory’s six-inch Warner and Swasey telescope with Brashear objective, built around 1892, is still functional, having been restored in the late 1990s by members of the Seattle Astronomical Society, volunteers from which still operate the scope on open house nights. Light pollution and the large trees that have grown up around the observatory limit the scope’s use somewhat, but it is an effective outreach tool; the open houses at the observatory, featuring observing when weather permits and talks by astronomy students, have proven to be popular.

The office project has a modest price tag. Larson figures as little as $1,500 would get them going with some decent display cases, other furniture, posters, and interactive exhibits. She plans to pitch the university for funds, but budgets are tight. She may also consider some sort of crowdfunding effort. If you would like to donate to help with the project, visit the Jacobsen Observatory website to find out how.

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