When asked why humans should care about light pollution, Stephen Loring, co-curator of the new exhibition Lights Out: Recovering Our Night Sky at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, quoted Dune author Frank Herbert. “He wrote ‘ecology is an awareness of consequences,’” Loring told Hyperallergic.

“Technological advances in lighting and the worldwide expansion of the electrical grid have made artificial lighting ever more available,” Loring continued. “But as we light up our world, it is becoming apparent that it also creates serious impediments to the life cycles of diverse fauna including birds, insects, and sea life.”

During the migratory season, volunteers with the Lights Out DC program scour the sidewalks downtown in the early mornings to collect injured or dead birds, which become part of the museum’s collection. (image courtesy Smithsonian)

Undeniably, Lights Out, which opened this March and is up through December 2025, is an exhibition with its head in the clouds but feet planted on the terra firma of jarring statistics. For example, more than 80% of people worldwide live under some degree of light-polluted skies, and in North America, 80% of the continent’s population cannot see the Milky Way galaxy in the night sky due to light pollution, according to research presented, analyzed, and dramatically visualized by the 4,340-square-foot exhibition. In addition to infographics, photographs capture both the wonders of the cosmos and the deleterious effects of human civilization on Earth, and an immersive installation takes visitors through a dusk-to-dawn light cycle that highlights the value of the nighttime experience. The exhibition is a call to action for visitors to help mitigate their own contributions to light pollution.

Normally, light pollution obscures the stars over Goodwood, Ontario, Canada (orange skyglow, left), but during the Northeast Power Blackout of 2003, residents were treated to a view of the Milky Way (right). (image courtesy Todd Carlson)

“The issue of light pollution is unknown to many, but it is incredibly important and connected to other issues of how we care for our planet,” Kim Arcand, guest co-curator of the exhibition and data visualizer for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, told Hyperallergic. “Light pollution is something we can address, in big and small ways. Turn off excess lights at night, shield or point lights down, use warmer lighting colors, and less intense lighting when you can. And support lawmakers and legislation that address issues around wasted lighting at community levels.”

Lights Out balances the warring emotions between the innate, primal awe of relating to an undiminished view of the night sky and the quotidian horror that widespread electric lighting inflicts on innumerable species of birds, insects, marine life, and mammals — including, philosophically, ourselves. While a need to conquer the darkness might be a natural impulse in one way, Arcand argues that a need to commune with the night sky is even more fundamental.

An Australian tree frog (Litoria caerulea) communes with a full moon, just one of many species affected by the encroachment of light pollution. (© Avalon.red / Alamy Stock Photo)

“Access to artificial light whenever we want it is relatively new on a species scale,” she said. “Humans may have a primal instinct to thrive in whatever natural light is available at night. Think of all the stories, art, music, and other important pieces of culture that have been created because of our access to the stars and the night sky.”

Loring, who is an archaeologist with the museum’s Arctic Studies Center, similarly disputes the notion of nighttime as “dark” to begin with and echoes a belief that a galactic view is important to our humanity.

“Growing up in New Hampshire and for much of my adult life working in the Arctic, there is nearly no such thing as a dark night,” said Loring, between quotes on the sanctity of the heavens from Dante’s Inferno (1321) and Paul Bowles’s album Baptism of Solitude (1995). “And never before — well, not since certain cataclysmic meteorites wreaked havoc some 65 million years ago — has life, as we know it, on our planet been so threatened.”

Japanese firefly (Hotaria parvula) Okayama, Japan. Brighter nights make it harder for fireflies to stand out and to distinguish between species. If fireflies cannot successfully reproduce or feed, their populations will dwindle. (image courtesy Tsuneaki Hiramatsu)
Bright galactic core of the Milky Way with Mars, Saturn, and Antares in Scorpius above moonlit sandstone rock formations in the Alabama Hills of California. (© Babak Tafreshi, TWAN)

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....