New museum observatory director mixes music, astronomy

jholleman@thestate.comAugust 24, 2013 

Matthew Whitehouse looks up into the night sky and sees much more than the tiny bursts of light most of us see. He sees musical scores and ethno-cultural touchstones and endless educational opportunities.

Because he has those visions, and an overflowing enthusiasm to share them with others, Whitehouse was the ideal candidate to be the first manager of the observatory at the South Carolina State Museum.

The observatory, now under construction, is slated to open by the summer of 2014 as part of the museum’s Windows to New Worlds expansion. Museum executive director Willie Calloway recognized the importance of landing the right person to be the public face of the observatory.

Tom Falvey, the museum’s director of education, went through the initial list of candidates, and one stood out. “Tom told me ‘I’ve got this guy, and there’s something about him,’” Calloway recalled.

The “something” quickly was evident to Calloway, too. During a Skype interview from Tucson, Ariz., “I saw a creative, smart guy who could bring a new perspective to our state museum,” Calloway said.

The 31-year-old was born in Columbia but grew up in Mississippi, where his inquisitive mind dug deep into multiple fields – especially music, physics and astronomy. He chose music as the major course of study for his undergraduate degree at the University of South Carolina and for his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Arizona.

Whitehouse inadvertently started down the road to his astronomical future with a South Carolina Honors College seminar taught by music professor Reginald Bain that dealt with the intersection of science and music. Another Honors College class led to Whitehouse’s involvement in a science outreach program at EdVenture Children’s Museum.

Through those classes, “I discovered I was going to be a musician AND an educator,” Whitehouse said.

Bain remembers Whitehouse as one of his few organ students who was equally exceptional as a composer and a performer. Because Whitehouse also worked to meet the extra requirements of the Honors College, “he was doing three people’s worth of work,” Bain said.

Bain, also director of the Experimental Music Studio at USC, said he is proud of his former student and honored that Whitehouse credited his class as inspirational.

“I can’t think of anyone better suited” for the new observatory job, Bain said. “Columbia is very luck to have him back.”

Whitehouse’s post-graduate work in music at the University of Arizona allowed him to get involved in public programs at the Steward Observatory at Kitt Peak and the Mount Lemmon Sky Center, world class facilities in the Tucson area. In addition to standard music study, he took courses in cultural astronomy – the sky stories told by various ethnic groups – and in ethnic musicology. As part of his doctoral dissertation, he wrote an organ work inspired by music and mythology associated with the star cluster Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters.

“I’m an interdisciplinary person,” explained Whitehouse, who hopes to get involved in a church music program when he gets settled in Columbia. “In the field of astronomy, people like me are not unprecedented.”

John Herschel, one of the fathers of modern astronomy in the 1800s, was an organist before he gained fame for his scientific contributions. Jack Horkheimer toured the country as a jazz pianist and organist before hosting the “Star Gazer” PBS series and becoming executive director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium.

The links between music and astronomy go back to medieval times when education was separated into the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).

“The two fields have a lot of connections, and they have through a lot of history,” Whitehouse said. “I think that’s important for what we’re doing here at the museum.”

The planetarium and 4-D theater components of Windows to New Worlds will feature music, maybe even some iteration of Whitehouse’s doctoral work. He has developed a lesson plan that asks youngsters to study some aspect of astronomy, then listen to a piece of organ music, then discuss in a group how the two interact.

Whitehouse was excited when a student decided the high and low notes that give a musical piece structure compare to the hydrostatic equilibrium that keeps planetary objects stable.

Whitehouse, 31, revels in the idea of starting the Windows effort from scratch and working with Falvey to come up with the educational program. He takes pride in being able to take profound concepts and make them understandable to students.

A 1926 Alvan Clark 123/8-inch refracting telescope will be the eyes of the 1,750-square foot observatory and classroom. But that historical masterpiece will be connected to a modern system that will allow teachers, or students, to direct it using an iPad.

Whitehouse came on board at the State Museum in early August, and the Windows project won’t begin until late spring or early summer 2014. He is making connections with local astronomy groups, and he can’t wait to get involved in the Planets for the People effort that takes museum telescopes to public areas for night viewing.

For now, however, he’s more a planner than an educator. The new observatory on the upper floor of the museum “is in the state of rip up,” Whitehouse said. “It’s fun to go in there and imagine what it’s going to be.”

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