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Whither the Planetarium: Various futures for digital domes

Written by Lesley Markham

Three interesting and different perspectives were offered on the role of the modern planetarium during the session, “Whither the Planetarium: Various futures for digital domes” on Saturday, October 17. Should they primarily provide astronomy shows, or should we embrace the wider use of digital materials, allowing broader content?

Mike Shanahan from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, kicked off the session with a fascinating history of planetariums – from the first years in the 1930s, to their role in promoting the Space Race in the 1960s, to the use of Kodak projectors peaking in the 1980s, through to the digital age of today.

Toshi Komatsu from the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, talked about their small, 50-seat planetarium where hands-on audience participation is used in their shows. Many larger planetariums use pre-recorded audio for their presentations, but Lawrence Hall prefers to produce live shows where the script can be adapted and molded to the audience. Komatsu described how story telling is the key to an engaging program.

In contrast, Ryan Wyatt from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco heads up a large, one-directional planetarium. The dome of the planetarium is a part of the green roof of the museum that incorporates the space into the mission of Cal Academy – exploring, explaining, and sustaining life on earth. They produce their own theater shows and have increasingly moved from astronomy-based to earth science-based content. Newer presentations focus on the San Francisco earthquake and “Habitat Earth.” While the shows have recorded narration, they still retain a certain amount of live presentation at the beginning, middle, and end of each show. This provides a personal connection with the audience and allows for questions and answers.

Shanahan completed the trio of presentations by taking the audience through the history of the planetarium at the Bishop Museum. The planetarium was built about fifty years ago and it was decided that it would remain as a more traditional model with a star projection machine mainly focusing on astronomy content. One does not invest $1 to $3 million in a star machine and then not use it as the main attraction! But why stick with something more traditional? Shanahan explained that for astronomy, he believes that star machines provide a clearer pinpoint star system than digital media can achieve.

The Bishop Museum not only focuses on science, but also on Hawaiian culture. One of the popular planetarium shows describes early Polynesian navigation by the stars that led to the settling of the Hawaiian Islands. The Bishop Museum receives higher audience ratings for star shows than other content. This clearly works in Hawaii – maybe because gazing at the stars in paradise is a beautiful thing to do!

The three presenters provided wonderful contrasts – large vs. small; astronomy content vs. earth science content; live hands-on presentation vs. pre-recorded content. Each has successful programs, demonstrating that the planetarium world is thriving in many forms in our museums and science centers.