The Third Stage of Planetarium Evolution
Max L Ary
Charlie M. Noble Planetarium
Fort Worth, Texas, USA
Forty-four years ago, the idea of planetarium education was initiated within this country. On May 5, 1930, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago opened its doors. Since then, planetariums in general and the whole concept of education that was to take place within their doors have radically changed and evolved.
We now find ourselves within the third stage of planetarium evolution – a stage in which all planetarians will find our own institutions within varying degrees. A stage which all of us need to evaluate and just generally sit back and think about.
The first stage of this evolutionary process led to such institutions as the Adler, the Fels, the Griffith, the Hayden, and the Buhl Planetariums. This was a stage that I would like to call the Mausoleum Era. These planetariums were set up, usually by large foundations, with the main concern being to honor the families that originated the foundation. Families like the Adlers, the Haydens, and the Buhls were immortalized in gigantic buildings of marble, concrete, and precious metals. They were castles complete with statuary, large gardens with reflection pools and fountains, and an architecture of great massiveness and openness. Within them stood huge domes containing some of the most massive and sophisticated optical instruments in the world such as the Zeiss star projector. But, at this point in history, very few people could fully appreciate the educational future of such a center. These were objects of great curiosity for they were new and no one really knew their potential. This was their calling card and their pulling power. All to often the public was drawn to these institutions mainly because of their aesthetic and curiosity-forming ingredients more than the educational value they possessed.
After all, who was really interested in a relatively new science called "Astronomy"? What good was a science based purely on theories and unproven ideas? These mausoleums became much like a world's fair exhibit – once they had been seen and experienced, the curiosity vanished, and with it went any remaining educational value that these people thought the planetarium contained. This can best be proven through a survey taken by the Hayden Planetarium in New York City during the first ten years of its operation. It was found that only five percent of the people visiting the planetarium during that first decade of operation had visited the planetarium before. This means that only five percent of the combined audience felt that there was something to come back and see again. This may have been the result of the fact that the people of this era (the thirties, forties, and fifties) were scientifically ignorant and could not fully appreciate what a science, or more specifically, an astronomy education center, could give them. Or it may have been the fault of the planetarium itself in not providing a continuous, provocative type of programming for its audience. But in the planetarium's instance in this country this really did not matter, because the institution was doing what it originally set up to do – that of honoring and showing how great and how community-minded a certain dead philanthropist had been.
This was basically the scene set for most planetariums in this country up until the early 1950s. Slowly, mainly through the efforts of a few dedicated individuals within these large institutions, the tremendous educational potential of a planetarium began to be recognized. But a great problem arose. There were five planetariums in this country to serve approximately 40 million students and 180 million people.
For those living in the smaller cities and rural communities, the planetarium experience would never be a reality. The obvious solution to this growing problem was to install more projectors to meet the demand. This solution, however, presented even more problems. A major Zeiss planetarium installation was truly a million dollar operation. Few communities possessed either the financial means or the enthusiasm for astronomy to provide necessary funds for such an undertaking. Seemingly, the only answer for this problem was to develop a new concept in planetariums – the small, relatively inexpensive planetarium. This goal was accomplished in 1947 when Armand Spitz introduced the Model A star projector. Shortly thereafter, the Models Al and A2 were introduced, and the planetarium world found itself entering into a whole new stage of evolution.
This second stage is one with which we today can identify. This was the stage that allowed the small planetarium to set its roots within the American educational system. Small cities, towns, and even relatively small schools found that a planetarium was now within their financial grasp. Between 1950 and 1957, over 100 small planetariums set their foundations in the American soil. But still, these small, early institutions possessed the problem that the large planetariums had encountered – all they really had to offer the public was curiosity. But in the case of these smaller planetariums, curiosity could not support them, since most were located in relatively small population centers. They had to develop more; they had to create more to assure themselves that their attendance and financial stability could be maintained.
In 1957, a great world happening allowed planetariums, more specifically the small planetariums, to go beyond the curiosity stage. It was that year that a tremendous wave of forced enthusiasm quite suddenly engulfed the American people. This was instigated by a feeling of great urgency – an urgency propagated by an imminent challenge. Man's machines had invaded the solitude of the space environment, and man was soon to follow. On October 4th of that year, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first artificial satellite and surprised the free world with its advanced technology. America was shocked out of its complacency, and a few months later placed its own satellite into orbit. And so, the technological contest hadbegun. America found itself and its educational program wholly inadequate to meet this challenge.
It was apparent to the nation's legislators and educators that from that time forward, the United States, by accepting the space challenge, must also accept the responsibility of educating its people to the space environment. Astronomy and space science impregnated almost every field of learning, and an understanding of them became essential to the country's well being. It penetrated the nation's history, economics, foreign policy, and all branches of its science and industry. In the schools, the teachers became victims of the times – totally unprepared to answer the probing questions of the students. Parents were suddenly confronted with the excitement their children found in the drama of the space age, but like their children's teachers, could not nurture the enthusiasm of their inquiring minds. It was this dilemma, forced upon the American people, that brought the modern American planetarium – and more specifically again the small planetarium – into its own. In fact, the planetarium represented such a highly potential space education tool that it was selected by President Eisenhower's Advisory Council as one of six outstanding innovative educational projects of his term of office. It was through this concern of the President and Congress that the NDEA matching funds and Title III grants led to the construction of literally hundreds of new, small planetariums throughout the country.
Everyone was getting into the scene with seemingly every community thinking that they needed a planetarium. Also, of the 700 plus planetariums that had been built by 1970, it would be a fairly safe assumption to say that there were probably 700 plus ways that school administrators, appointed planetarium directors, and foundation boards thought that their facility should be utilized within their own community. In many ways this was good, for it lead to a totally new creative process within the planetarium community – a process that, at this point, was greatly needed to modernize the educational techniques in planetariums. Also, the small planetariums had begun to fight for their lives to survive. One reason for the tremendous increase in the number of institutions was the idea of planetariums being an "interesting novelty" began to quickly wear off. No longer could a planetarium rely upon the fact that the public was enjoying a sophisticated freak show. Because of the public's interest, it had to become a warehouse of knowledge and open up to become a learning environment.
This brings us to the third stage in planetarium evolution that most readers can identify with – a stage that in many ways may be the most crucial stage yet encountered, and one that needs to be handled with utmost care to preserve the future of planetarium education This stage encompasses what I would like to call the 2001 Complex or possibly better yet, the MGM Syndrome.
Not all planetariums experience this stage. Those that are set up mainly as planetariums many times do not go through this syndrome – it is reserved for those of us that are labeled "public planetariums."
This syndrome has been caused basically by the increase in sophistication of audiences. At least with our case in Fort Worth, we find that most people are coming to see more than just a general night sky presentation. What they seen to want every time is a run-off of 2001 – Space Odyssey. This can create a few problems – especially if you are only allocated thirty, forty, or fifty dollars a month for materials. This brings up a very large question – should we attempt to compete with other media such as the movie industry? Because of the movie industry producing such shows as Marooned, Silent Running, The Andromeda Strain and the classic 2001 – all produced for the big screen – and those shows produced for television such as Star Trek, Earth II, and Genesis II, audiences are craving a blend of science and reality that makes them feel that they are really (quote) "a part of the space age."
I feel most of us that are trying to create this type of illusion within our shows are achieving it to some degree. But, if we are going to continue this form of production within our institutions, we must very definitely consider some possible problems. First of all, audiences reach a saturation point very rapidly. If you create a "tremendous, slam-bang" show that the audience gets totally turned on to one month, you better be prepared to create an even more "tremendous, slam-bang" show the next month, or you will slowly lose your audience. Once they have experienced a certain level of production, they expect to see at least that level, if not more, in every show. Will this become a never ending pyramid? Who's really to tell? For the sake of most of us, the answer is no. For you can only make so many things out of broken pop bottles, shimmer disks, brute force projectors, and broken mirrors. Everyone has a point where his or her creativity stops. To continue this spiraling pyramid, we are going to have to look forward to seeing a tremendous increase in annual budgets. To accommodate these increases, we will have to guarantee not only a stabilized attendance, but an ever increasing one. In other words, what I am trying to say is that for us to accept the challenge that various visual media seemingly present to us, we will have to, likewise, accept the responsibility of possibly sticking our necks out too far. This is a great responsibility, not only for ourselves, but for the future of the small planetarium.
Already I am seeing programs in which the star projector acts primarily as a background for the rest of the visuals. I am seeing planetariums turning away from that original intention that Armand Spitz had – that of a simple, discreet, astronomy educational tool. Maybe this is good, for it may be part of continuing to explore a planetarium's potential. But, I think we do need to stop and think, and to plan what we are going to do with this and how far we can take this type of production. We need to think about this not only as individuals but as a group. I am in hopes that in some future conferences, or possibly symposiums that any of us may set up, that this problem can be discussed.
Another thing that I am seeing public planetarium directors do is to become so carried away with the idea of creating a planetarium version of 2001 that they become blind to what they are actually trying to do. In other words, it is like the old saying, "You can't see the forest for the trees." They, many times, have their heads so high up in the clouds they are not seeing what their audiences are really requesting. They are, very simply, prima donnas. I can say this because I, myself, found that I was slipping into this Jehovah complex state. I realized that I was more concerned with the production of a show than with the content. Luckily, I was made aware of this situation before it got too far out of hand. Now, I find myself having my shows, and any other output from my institution, critiqued by fellow staff members, colleagues, and the general public. It has helped tremendously in showing us the path that we in Fort Worth must follow, and has also given us guidelines and a point of reference on which to base future shows.
In closing, I would like to invite all of you, specifically in this case, those of you who man public planetariums, to fully evaluate what you do with them in the future. I think you need to ask yourself a few general questions: (1) Are you giving your public in your own community what they want? (2) What is this thing that the public wants – is it educational or is it just entertainment? (3) Are you creating for yourself a never ending production pyramid that will eventually produce a quality plateau? (4) In creating your presentations, do you find yourself competing with other planetariums and continue to try to outdo them to the point that it becomes the main purpose of the program?
Remember, in the planetarium field in this country today, it is those of us within the small public planetariums that are keeping creative openness alive. But remember also, that it is our responsibility to insure that this creative process will be maintained in the future.
Reproduced from the Planetarian, Vol. 3 #1-2, spring/summer 1974. Copyright 1974 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.