Meet Kelly Ann Herbst: Keeper of Lost Skies

Tidewater Women’s Fran Ward met Dr. Kelly Ann Herbst, astronomy curator at the Virginia Living Museum, in her natural habitat: Abbitt Planetarium.

TW: Good morning, Kelly, You are the first “artist” with a PhD in Thermonuclear Physics I have interviewed for Art Folks! Where are you from? And in broad brushstrokes, what do you do?

KH: I’m from Staten Island. Because of night lights, we don’t see the sky the way we used to. Our skies are vanishing globally. I want to make the skies visible—if not outdoors, then in a planetarium. I might be a “Keeper of Lost Skies.”

TW: Add “poet” to your list of artist, scientist, and theoretician! You are able to combine, dovetail, and present concepts in a meaningful and captivating way.

KH: Creativity is my favorite part of my job, and I’ve been here for 22 years!

TW: I’ve been to “star parties” at the Virginia Living Museum to view eclipses through telescopes at the Abbitt Observatory. Everyone wore “moon” glasses (sunglasses worn at night). Planetarium hosts served green cheese! There was a great spirit of fun and learning. You’ve managed to combine science and natural inquisitiveness with a creative flair to engage a wide range of observers and participants!

KH: Anything to do with astronomy becomes a resource and inspiration to engage all ages. The planetarium was built by the Junior League of Hampton Roads in 1965. They had the foresight to give the community a planetarium theater with a 30-ft. projection dome and a Spitz sciDome planetarium instrument. The theater seats 71 in seats with a full view of the sky without neck strain.

TW: What is astronomy?

KH: Astronomy is the branch of science that deals with celestial objects and space. The word for anything in the sky used to be a “star.” Planets and meteors were all considered stars. The sky was used as a navigation tool.

TW: This must be where the Three Magi enter the picture.

KH: Three Magi from three different countries took six months each, following their individual calculations, observations, and predictions.

TW: If they were observers, they must have been recorders as well.

KH: Yes, in “Star of Wonder” you’ll see clay tablets used at the time.

TW: Did the three plan to travel together?

KH: No, they met up with each other and followed their conclusions, their guidance, and their dreams.

TW: What did they see?

KH: That’s a good question. The legendary Star of Bethlehem is one part of the astronomical answer. For centuries, the light in the sky the Magi followed was believed to have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. Through modern astronomy, what was seen in the sky for the past 2,000 years can be recreated. The “star” is currently believed by many to have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Bear in mind, everything in the sky was called a star. There was likely also a Star of Bethlehem as we have always imagined it. You’ll see that discussion in the planetarium feature “Star of Wonder.” Would you like to see it now?

TW: Yes! (30 minutes later) I know it is called the Virginia LIVING Museum, but I am amazed at how much life you have brought to a traditional Christmas story. The planetarium A/V presentation starts with cameo photos of the major Christmas productions in Hampton Roads from Dickens’ Christmas Towne to Busch Gardens—scenes familiar to families in Tidewater. The planetarium Christmas story proceeds with new life added to an old legend.

KH: Families come year after year to see “Star of Wonder.” New generations will see this year’s updated version complete with narration and music.

TW: The show cites Biblical references, and the silhouette of the Three Kings on camels crossing the desert is familiar. Then questions are posed and topics are discussed that catapult thinking into this century, bringing new dimensions to light.

KH: The story of the Magi does not end in the desert.

TW: I never thought of them past the tableau and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

KH: The three traveled the world since then, and their relics have been united in Europe.

TW: The planetarium theater dome is the screen for one scene: a stunning artistic backdrop of stained glass windows in Cologne Cathedral, which houses the remains of the Three Kings. It takes one’s breath away. And the show poses mysteries. “Star of Wonder” is a fabulous presentation. Kelly, you make astronomy come alive! My final question is what would you like the readers of Tidewater Women to know?

KH: Never stop learning! Take an interest and follow through on it. Come to party nights at the Virginia Living Museum. Science is for everyone. If you have a curiosity for something, pursue it! The Museum encourages your love of learning.

Star of Wonder shows run through December 31, 2015. Times vary; call ahead. • Virginia Living Museum, 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News • 757-595-1900 • ($)

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Fran Ward

Fran Ward is an artist and writer with a Ph.D. in Metaphysics (the body, mind, spirit connection). She is an active art and music lover who enjoys traditional cultural productions as well as seeking events off the beaten path. Reach her at

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