Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category


Infurating God?

January 15, 2009

I just have to comment on this.  Some guy complained about a “Buddha statue” (i.e. a decoration at the tiger exhibit) at the Kansas City Zoo:

Engle, who said he and his family are Christians, said it was idolatry and “infuriating to God.”


“We can’t have a cross or a nativity scene on public property,” said Engle of Overland Park, who complained to a zoo employee. “It is phenomenal to me that the zoo would put up Buddha statues.”

Mr. Engle missed a couple of points here…  Firstly, the Zoo is a private company, and can display whatever the heck they want, and secondly, IT’S NOT EVEN BUDDHA:

“I have seen them,” said Lama Chuck Stanford, executive and spiritual director of the Rime Buddhist Center & Monastery. “They are statues of Ho Tai, the patron saint of children in China and Japan. He is closer to Santa Claus.”

Durned foreigners and their beautiful heritage-rich flags!

Durned foreigners and their beautiful heritage-rich flags!

I worked at the KC Zoo’s education deparment a few years ago (one season with Lama Chuck’s daughter, cooincidentally enough).  In the African section of the zoo, we had the Kenyan flag on display, flying above the African-styled gift shop.

I came in after a weekend and noticed that it had been replaced with an American flag, which, uh, didn’t make any damn sense whatsoever.  I asked what the deal was, and it turns out that someone from the American Legion had complained about a foreign flag flying, so it was removed and replaced.

File that instance and this one under the heading of, “People Who Just Don’t Get It, and Probably Never Will.”


Goodbye, Greg

January 14, 2009

I’ve started and stopped this entry four times now.  Apparently I’m having trouble putting exactly what I want to say into words, so I’ll instead just be to the point:

Greg Hawley, curator of the Steamboat Arabia Museum and therefore my boss during my short but treasured time as a tour guide there, a man I admired very much for his vision, perseverance, geniality, and cleverness, died on Saturday in a car accident.  He was only 50.

My condolences and best wishes go out to his family and the staff at the museum.

If you have never been to the Arabia Museum, I encourage you to visit; it is a venue like no other, thanks in no small part to Greg and his tireless efforts.

He was truly an exhibit unto himself, actual walking, talking history, vibrant and enthusiastic, and will be missed.


My Definition

January 11, 2009

Spurred by a discussion happening on the Dome-L planetarium mailing list, I feel compelled to discuss my philosophies and observations behind the definition of the word “planetarium.”

Defining this industry seems like it should be pretty straightforward. I mean, even if a person has never been to a planetarium before, they still at least know what one is, right?

Well, not necessarily. As I’ve said before, I’m always amazed at the number of adults that have absolutely no clue what the planetarium is.

Partially the product of growing up in rural Missouri, I had long been an adult before I had actually ever visited a planetarium. It was the Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum in DC. I’m pretty sure the show I saw was Oceans in Space.

Even though I had never been to one, I still knew what a planetarium was: a specialty theater that showed astronomy programming.

Like a lot of kids in the ‘80s, I was very interested in space and science, and had aspirations of being an astronaut. I had been to see OMNIMAX shows, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and loved the experience—strangely, I don‘t remember much about the actual shows that we saw, but I do remember the ambiance of the theater: the tiered seating, the big reclining chairs, the domed screen, the gigantic elevating film projector… It’s telling, perhaps, that I was more fascinated with the theater than I was with the content.

Thinking back to the what I was like as a kid, I’m sure that I would have absolutely flipped out over seeing a show in a planetarium. It would have been one of those experiences that I would have never forgotten.

I try to keep that in mind when kids tell me that this is their first visit to the planetarium—that this could be something they remember their entire lives. It’s not soley the show they watch, or the uniqueness of the theater, or the music or the fantastic imagery. It’s the whole package; I want them to take the happy memory of the experience of the planetarium with them when they leave.

Anyway, there’s been an argument raging off and on for months on Dome-L about digital projection technology and its impact on the quality and subject matter of planetarium programming.

Traditionally, planetarium show imagery has been done with a series of projectors working in concert: typically a star projector, slide projectors for images, and various speciality effects projectors for things like planets, the Moon, the Sun, comets, shooting stars, auroras, etc.

Most newer planetaria forego these mechanical projectors and instead use digital systems that project a video image across the entire dome. As you can imagine, this can be very versatile—you can project almost anything a traditional mechanical system could (including starfields and images), plus much, much more.

On the mailing list, there have been a few proponents of traditional planetarium projection– Actually, let me rephrase that: There have been a few opponents of full dome projection systems that are voicing their displeasure with the new technology.

This phrase, a direct quote from one of them, sums their viewpoint up nicely:

“If it doesn’t have a star projector in its center, it’s not a planetarium, it’s a movie theater.”

Suffice it to say, I disagree vehemently. In fact, I would go so far as to say (and did so in a response on the list) that fantastically ridiculous to say such a thing.

I won’t go longwinded and try to outline the reasons why I think it’s ridiculous (at least not in this post—most assuredly later I will), but after some serious pondering on the subject, I’ve revised my personal definition of planetarium, which was:

A planetarium is a theater that specializes in aerospace programming.

This is my stock response to people that come up to me in the lobby and ask what the planetarium is. It gets the point across nicely. But to get down into the nitty-gritty philosophy of exactly what a planetarium is, I present a couple of revisions to my definition:

  • “…specializes in…” does not mean “…solely presents…” In addition to star shows and aerospace documentaries, a planetarium can (and in my opinion, should) also branch out into other areas of science (history, geography, biology, physics, whatever—it‘s all related!) and also can do programming that is pure entertainment, like music or laser shows.
  • Also, “theater,” under my revised definition, means any kind of theater. Obviously this is somewhat of a gray area, as the definition of theater, beyond “a place with seats and a schedule of shows” can itself be difficult to pin down.

The real question then is, can a theater without a projection dome be a planetarium?

My answer is a resounding YES. A theater does not need a projection dome to be a planetarium! It helps, obviously, but give me a laptop with Stellarium and Celestia installed, a nice bright video projector and something to shoot it at, a laser pointer, a microphone, and darkness, and I could do a planetarium show anywhere.

Likewise, a theater with a projection dome isn’t always going to be a planetarium (and won’t always even attempt to be).

The point then, is this: A planetarium is defined by its content, not by its theater.

Every Planetarium is Different™, and whether a theater has older-style brute-force projectors, or newer-style digital projectors, the content is what defines the concept, not the shape of the theater or the age of the machines (or the people!) running it.

A boring show is a boring show, whether it’s done with a 30 year old star instrument or a 30 thousand dollar fisheye video projector, and boring shows will not leave first-timers with happy, excited memories of their inaugural visit to a planetarium. Content is what’s important, and good content will almost always make for good experiences.

Planetarium: a theater (any kind of theater) that specializes in (but doesn’t not necessarily solely present) aerospace programming.

That’s my definition, and I’m sticking to it.


Sting and The Sun

January 4, 2009

A pair of too-cute-for-words moments from yesterday:

We’re running Peter and the Wolf right now, a laser show of the musical version narrated by Sting. After one showing of it, a kid, probably 10 or 11, stopped in front of the control room and looked in the window at me. He said, “Were you the guy that was talking during the show?”

I chuckled and said, “No, that wasn’t me, it was Sting.”

He said, “Who’s that?”

I said, “Sting, the musician, he was in a band called ‘The Police.*’”

He furrowed his brow, looked around the control room and asked, “Is he back there with you?”


Later, after the star show, a little girl, not more than 4 years old probably, came back with her dad. She started to ask me something, but then got shy (which happens lots… I must be intimidating or goofy-looking or something–scratch that, I know I‘m goofy-looking). She looked up at her dad and he said, “Go ahead!”

I asked her if she had a question, and she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I was just wondering… What are all the stars’ jobs?”

It was one of those questions that sort of caught me off guard. Obviously, something in the show got it into her head that the stars have jobs, but getting the proper context from very young visitors can often be difficult, and I’m still not totally sure exactly what she meant by her question.

So, grasping for a teachable moment, I asked her if she knew that we have a star close to us here on Earth, and smartly (and cutely) she said, “It’s big and bright during the day–it’s the SUN!”

I told her that our sun has a very important job; it gives us heat and light, and also it’s so big that it holds our solar system together with its gravity.

Which then led into a heated philosophic debate over the strong vs. weak anthropic principle.

But seriously, a four year old understands what we mean when we say that the Sun’s job is to provide us with heat and light, but I would never put it that way to a visitor with the capability to get the real idea: the sun isn’t there because we need heat and light and gravity–we’re here because the Sun just happened to be providing heat and light and gravity.

I try not to anthropomorphize things when possible, but there are times you just can’t get around it in a museum setting.

*Nowadays touring under their alternate name, “Sting and the Other Guys.”