Bright artificial light drowns out the natural glow of the night sky. Now an exhibition highlights some of the consequences of the disappearance of the starry night — and how people can help restore it.
” Extinction of light ,” open through 2025 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., highlights how light pollution affects astronomy, natural ecosystems, and human cultures around the world. “We want people to understand that this is a global issue that has a wide impact,” says Jill Johnson, exhibit designer at the museum.
Upon entering the exhibition, the dimly lit space restores the mood for nighttime exploration. The exhibition spans a long corridor that can be accessed from both ends. A single entrance quickly attracts visitors with a personal connection. The interactive display invites you to experience your own night sky in a city, suburb or remote location. The three tactile panels have relief features, including dots to represent light pollution and crosses to represent visible stars. The more populated the place, the more points are placed on the panel.
Visitors can also listen to the artificial light and starlight in each sky with data that has been translated into sound. The multi-sensory experience is especially interesting for visitors who may not be able to see the exhibition visually.
Another entrance offers a more didactic introduction to the exhibition. The timeline presents a brief history of man-made light, from torches to modern LEDs, before moving on to astronomy. Astronauts rely on light, both visible and invisible, to understand celestial bodies. And their view of the universe is increasingly disturbed by artificial light.
“Astronomers were among the first to sound the alarm about light pollution,” says Ryan Lavery, the museum’s public relations officer.
Astronomers are not the only scientists to notice the effects. Biologists have observed how light pollution affects plants and animals, whether it affects the reproduction of corals caused by moonlight or the ability of bats to pollinate flowers. Here, much of the evidence shown is visual. Photographs and specimens show the diversity of creatures that are active at night, while a glass case of preserved birds shows the dire effects of light pollution. All of these birds died by hitting buildings in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, disoriented by the vivid cityscapes.
The loss of dark starry nights also affects human cultures. Another part of the exhibition presents ancient and modern connections of people with the night sky through photographs, stories and cultural monuments. The dazzling Milky Way beadwork was created especially for Lights Out by Gwich’in artist Margaret Nazon, who grew up stargazing in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Our connections under the common sky are emphasized in the small central theater of the exhibition. It recreates a starry night over Coudersport, Pennsylvania through dappled lighting and walls depicting trees and hills. The short film describes the star cluster Messier 45, also known as the Pleiades, and explains the origin of the stars according to the traditions of three cultures – the ancient Greeks, the Ainu in Japan and the Maori in New Zealand.
Until December 2025
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Washington, DC
“Cultures around the world have a deep connection to the night sky,” says Steven Loring, exhibition co-curator and museum archaeologist. “If we lose the night sky, we lose the way to our understanding of what it is to be human.”
But the exhibition is not so bleak. Scattered throughout are success stories of how people are reducing light pollution, from outdoor lighting curfews in France to beach communities that changed their lighting systems to keep sea turtle hatchlings away from the ocean. And visitors can be encouraged to learn about simple but meaningful actions they can take, such as turning street lights down and using minimal settings.
Overall, “Lights Out” instills a sense of hope and a desire to reconnect with the night sky. “It’s an optimistic exhibition,” says Loring. “We can solve this problem.”