Some of the world’s first picture books featured constellations and the legends associated with them. These existed long before the printing press was invented – similar to a Biblia Pauperum – and allowed commoners to experience the contours of their culture. For these early stargazers, the constellations moving across the sky were like night-time cinematography – the first precursors of moving pictures. It is astounding how differently various cultures around the world interpreted the night sky. There is no constellation of stars which is identical across multiple cultures; the stars were always grouped and traced, explained and interpreted in very different ways. As most documented depictions of constellations date back to prehistorical and pre-literate times, the heavens are arguably the world’s oldest “intangible cultural heritage” as defined by UNESCO. Yet most of us know next to nothing about the heavens of other cultures. There is no atlas anywhere in the world that comprehensively documents the constellations of other cultures, and there is no institution dedicated to investigating these cultural artefacts.

The Berlin Planetariums Foundation plans to produce such an atlas together with the Austrian literary scholar and writer Raoul Schrott. Science and modern technology will serve as the basis for a digital format that will acoustically and visually present the images and tales of constellations in a place where they can be experienced best – at the planetarium. A pioneering effort will be necessary to present the vast array of constellations and legends around the world in a planetarium setting. Drawing on hundreds of academic articles from ethnological, astronomical and literary publications, and assisted by a team of researchers, Raoul Schrott will collect the individual facets to create a celestial cartography. In cases where knowledge has only been transmitted orally, the project team will have to speak with local experts from the respective indigenous cultures. Raoul Schrott will then compile the collected archaeological, astronomical and mythological material from these cultures and present it for the first time in what amounts to a modern scientific theatre – the planetarium.

The texts will form the basis for developing a digital narrative format for spherical dome projections. The project explicitly stipulates that the media developed by TRIAD will be available to interested parties worldwide, especially to smaller planetariums in regions whose indigenous cultures historically documented and interpreted the heavens. The open-source technology will enable local planetariums and cultural institutions to autonomously add to the content and make it available to the entire planetarium network. As an internationally networked scientific forum, the Berlin Planetariums Foundation uses precision-based technologies which enable it to present constellations in the viewing dome in stunning visual quality using real-time data. While most planetariums present shows on modern-day astronomical phenomena, this project aims to offer a cultural-historical and literary perspective using cutting-edge technology and allow audiences to experience how very different cultures interpreted the heavens.

The Federal Cultural Foundation has allocated 954,650 euros to finance the project Atlas of the Heavens from 2018 to 2023.