Lessons from a Total Eclipse
Ken Miller, Chairman
Bishop Museum Planetarium
1525 Bernice Street
Honolulu, Hawaii 96817
The total solar eclipse of July 11, 1991 taught Hawaii's Bishop Museum Planetarium staff a number of lessons. The knowledge we gained during the two years leading up to the eclipse may benefit others who will someday "host" a total eclipse or all who would take advantage of partial eclipses as moments to reach the public with the messages of astronomy.
Of the three main lessons learned, the most heartening was that the general public, while just as ignorant as we thought they were, are also very eager to learn. We utilized a wide variety of teaching methods to help Hawaii witness the solar eclipse safely. Our public education efforts started exactly a year and a day before the eclipse with a media workshop held at the museum. We invited members of the working print and electronic media this early to give them advance information about the event, its public safety aspects, the technology necessary to cover it, and the anticipated scale of the international event which was about to hit the state. They were then better able to pace what was later called "The Story of the Decade."
Through continuing media releases, free aluminized Mylar camera filter material, free consultation on higher quality filters, and work with the TV and other technicians, the planetarium was soon declared "Eclipse Central" and I acquired the title of "Mr. Eclipse." Our intentional accessibility to the local and international news media resulted in a press clipping book which is 5 inches thick, and over 7 hours of TV and radio time.
Direct contact with the public was through a 6,000 square foot, highly interactive eclipse exhibit which was visited by 132,000 people. Our 30-foot, 77-seat planetarium hosted over 57,000 audience members in just four months. Our public, automated program "Moonshadows: Eclipses Through Time" was joined by a participatory school program, "Eclipse!" which emphasized moon phases. This program was also converted for use in our five StarLab portable planetariums which toured throughout the state to educate an additional audience of 71,000 students and members of the general public.
Funding for this major education effort was made possible by four corporate sponsors. American Express Travel Services, Aston Hotels and Resorts, Budget Rent a Car, and Hawaiian Airlines saw our program, called Eclipse Hawaii, as a way to help local residents and their customers from the mainland view the eclipse safely while building positive images for themselves with the local community. Co-promotions with these travel industry giants helped bring additional audiences into the museum and generated more business for them as well.
The second major lesson we learned is that an aggressive campaign of eye safety education can be successful. There are, however, many in any community who, through confusion of good information or downright bad advice, would give conflicting messages to the public. Perhaps the worst offenders are, in fact, members of our own profession! In the months before the eclipse, national publications and mainland media releases issued their tired old releases advising that no direct viewing technique is safe, and that the best viewing technique is to watch TV or to use the "pin-hole projector" method.
As any of us can testify, the old cardboard-box-over-the-head technique gives a most unsatisfactory image. Furthermore, in our tests with school aged children and with adults, many could not use the technique properly. Using the standard written instructions, complete with the diagram of Abraham Lincoln's head in the box, too many observers actually tried to misuse the box by turning it around to view the sun directly through the pin-hole! Others said, "Is that all I'm supposed to see? Why bother?" Simply stated, the pin-hole technique works poorly when used as directed and is downright dangerous when used incorrectly. Likewise, as one reporter put it, "Watching a total solar eclipse on TV is sort of like reading about sex. It's not quite the same as being there."
We declared all of this old-school eclipse wisdom to be nonsense, and gave the public the same advise we all have given our own families for years. That is, "Use a safe, aluminized Mylar direct viewing filter." Unfortunately, there are those who say that these filters have not been proven safe, simply because the U.S. government has not declared a safe transmission level for solar filters. The Department of Health, OSHA, and other federal agencies have neglected to serve the field of astronomy. Since standards have not been set, professional astronomers must gamble with their eyesight just as much as the general public. Optometrists, to maintain low malpractice insurance rates, must declare that the filters "are not safe."
Luckily, responsible filter vendors work from other nation's standards, such as the strict ones in effect in Mexico, and sell these same filters to America. I would hope that members of the IPS might urge their respective governments to adopt solar filter standards so that planetarium staff members around the world will be able to say something more than "Well, they haven't been proven safe, but they haven't been proven unsafe either."
At Bishop Museum, we decided that the only truly responsible action was to sell filters to the public we served. Our insurance company investigated matters and backed us all the way. We chose filters from a major supplier, re-packaged them in informational envelopes carrying additional safety warnings, and sold them not only in our gift shops, but also sold them wholesale to outlets on all islands. More than 312,000 of these Bishop Museum Sun Peeps were sold. On eclipse day, nearly every family in Hawaii used a Sun Peep to safely view the partial phases of the eclipse.
Those who did not use Sun Peeps used our recommended indirect viewing technique, which we called the "Spot Mirror Technique." This method uses a plain hand mirror, covered with paper. A dime-sized hole (1 cm in diameter) is cut in the paper, and sunlight is bounced off this "spot mirror" a distance of 40-60 feet, into a shady area. There, a solar image the size of a soccer ball is projected onto a sheet of white paper. In our tests on normal sunny days, no one misused this technique, and all saw a satisfying image of the sun. Occasionally, a very large sunspot can even be discerned with this technique.
All in all, our campaign of eye safety on eclipse day worked. The media and Hawaii State Department of Health and Department of Education helped us get the word out. The local chapter of the American Optometric Society even agreed to stop short of the usual condemnation of direct viewing filters. In the months following the eclipse, two cases of eye damage were reported in the state of Hawaii. One case was a person who was with a group using Sun Peeps, who even had a Sun Peep in his pocket, but decided not to use it since it was partially cloudy. He suffered only temporary damage. The other case was a woman who knew it was dangerous, but decided to look through binoculars anyway, "but only for a few minutes." She suffered a small permanent burn in one eye. While these cases are, of course regrettable, they were the only ones reported by the hundreds of thousands of Hawaii observers.
Finally, with the important business of education and eye safety taken care of, we learned a lesson about merchandising. Our big ticket items were tours organized by the museum and its travel industry sponsors. Six hundred week-long hotel/car/eclipse packages quickly sold out, as did 1,100 day-trip jet/bus/breakfast packages from Honolulu to the Big Island on eclipse day. Even though clouds obscured the sun during totality, the crowd had a great time and over a hundred vowed to sign up with us for Bolivia in 1994!
Bishop Museum's Eclipse Hawaii logo appeared on dozens of products which were sold throughout the state. Over 22,000 T-shirts still are seen on Honolulu streets, our Sun Peeps became so popular that they became sought-after sales premiums at gas stations and convenience stores. The name Sun Peep soon became all too generic when others referred to competing brands. Thousands of Bishop Museum posters, postcards, baseball caps, sweatshirts, fanny packs, patches, beach towels, golf shirts, cloisonné pins, and commemorative silver and gold coins rounded out the product line. A thirty two page Eclipse Hawaii booklet sold 21,000 copies and went into a second printing.
Yes, Bishop Museum learned several lessons from the great Hawaiian Eclipse of 1991. We learned to utilize the media and other methods to effectively educate the public. We learned that the public is eager to learn viewing techniques which allow them to safely witness Mother Nature's greatest special effect. And finally, we learned to merchandise the museum and planetarium to "make hay while the sun doesn't shine." We hope that you will be able to use some of the lessons we learned to better handle your next eclipse, and are more than willing to share our experiences with any who ask. After all, we here in Hawaii won't have another chance to use this total eclipse information until May 3, 2106!
This paper was first delivered at the IPS Conference in Salt Lake City, June 1992.
Reproduced from the Planetarian, Vol. 21, #3, September 1992. Copyright 1992 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.