Just what is a planetarium? (The Long Answer)
Spurred by a discussion that happened on the Dome-L planetarium mailing list, I felt 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 it’s fantastically ridiculous to imply 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.