"What in the Heck Is a Planetarium Anymore?"
by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions
© 2005, Loch Ness Productions.

My fellow planetarians,

What follows is an essay reflecting both personal and professional views about the state of our chosen profession. I hope you'll take the time to consider the questions posed, and respond if you're so inclined.

In 1994, Dr. George Reed published an article in the Planetarian, provocatively titled "Who in the Hell Needs a Planetarium?" A worthy read then; still interesting more than a decade later (and now "it's only a click away"). I mention this because I'd like to take the question a step further. These days more and more I find myself pondering:

"What in the heck is a planetarium anymore?"

As many of you know, since 1977 I've maintained a database of the world's planetaria. It's what Loch Ness Productions uses every day to run its operations; it contains the data we publish as The LNP Dome Theater Compendium; it's what I used to generate the IPS Directory when I was Treasurer/Membership Chairman in the late 1980s. From its start on punch cards (!) through microcomputer paper tape to floppy disks to CDs to HTML documents, I've probably spent more time massaging and working the data, and become more familiar with the corpus of the "planetarium community," than anyone else in the world (would want to be).

I don't say this to brag; it's just that nowadays, "things ain't what they used to be." This is good — it shows that evolution is not a theory, it's a fact! But it also gives one pause, especially when issues that are fundamental to one's chosen profession seem to morph before one's eyes after years of relative constancy.

Naturally, the structure of the planetarium database has evolved a bit over the decades. I made more work for myself as I added new data items to track: classifications (school/university, museum, etc.), seating layouts, gift shops, attendance, staff positions, e-mails, Web sites, and more. But the original fields I started with for each data entry were:

  • Planetarium Maker
  • Projector Model
  • Dome size
  • Number of seats

What I'm finding is that even these basics — though seemingly obvious and clear-cut — don't adequately reflect the "reality" of the state of today's planetarium.

In the olden days, "the planetarium" was a unique place. You had a round room with a dome overhead and a mechanical star projector in the middle. There were a certain number of seats under the dome. A pretty straightforward and unambiguous definition — and singular. There was ONE dome, one star projector, one theater. Very simple, very easy.

Then the Starlab portable planetarium arose onto the scene. Now the "round room" was removed from the definition. Portables don't have fixed numbers of seats; they have a generic "capacity". And a goodly number of fixed-dome facilities in major metropolitan areas acquired one or more portables for outreach programs and such. All well and good... but now "the Farley McKluth Planetarium" as an institution is bringing the planetarium experience to the public through multiple venues — there is more than one dome, more than one star projector, more than one theater. You could present a planetarium show using a Zeiss in one theater and a Starlab in another.

So, now the simple questions can't be answered so easily. When you ask "How many planetaria are there in the world?" does a facility with one fixed-dome theater and three portables count as one planetarium, or four? When you ask what "the planetarium's attendance is", should we be talking about a grand total of fixed and portable attendance, or should those be tracked separately, since the chances are good that different programming is presented in each? What is significant? And — in the theme of this essay's title — who in the heck cares?

Then there's the simple query "What year did a planetarium open?" Let's say a facility starts out small with a Starlab, and then a few years later builds a fixed-dome theater. Or maybe they build an entirely new facility across town, all new equipment, new staff, and all vestiges of the old place are demolished. Does the "year of opening" refer to the institution, the theater, or the installation of the current projector?

Time was, we had planetaria with one big dome and maybe some portables. But even this exemplar has changed. Now you find more and more planetaria with multiple fixed-dome theaters — Adler in Chicago; the Buehler in Davie, Florida; the Pennington in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to name just a few (oh, and they also operate portables). In these cases, the definition of "the planetarium" has expanded to include multiple star theaters operating under the aegis of a single institution.

For many years, through a proliferation of theaters, it was still mostly "one projector per theater." Then Cocoa opened in 1994 with both an analog and digital star projector in the same theater. So, when you would look up "Projectors" in the Compendium index, their theater would show up twice. Okay, one could cope with that.

But since then, things have degenerated completely in terms of projector classification "like the olde days" when there was a star projector — a specialized device in the center of the room for creating stars on the dome. Now even THAT has changed. These days, you can have seats in the middle of the theater instead of a star machine, and quite generic video projectors around the periphery. The stars on the dome shine from those video projectors, but upstream, they can come from a variety of sources. Take the Eugenides Planetarium in Athens, Greece. It has multiple video projectors around the dome, fed by both Sky-Skan's DigitalSky and Evans & Sutherland's Digistar 3. There is no "star projector" per se. Actually, Athens does have a star projector — it's their old Zeiss IV under a separate dome in their lobby as an exhibit. Should I keep track of that in my database? And if so, how, and why, and does anyone care?

It used to be that planetarians delighted in debating the quality of the starfields produced by the various projector manufacturers — through pinpoints from arc lamps, plates and lenses, to fiber optics. Now, with fulldome video the apparent medium of choice, the old criteria of comparison no longer apply.

Let's say you have a new SciDome from Spitz. You don't have a "Spitz starfield" like you would if you had an A3P. Your stars are generated by the software application Starry Night. Or, you could run a fulldome video show produced by, say, Loch Ness Productions. We use DigitalSky to generate our star fields, so could you say the stars on your dome came from Sky-Skan? Does it matter to the audience? To you? You could also run the open-source software Stellarium in fisheye mode to display stars... or Partiview, or Digital Universe... or create your own starfield generator program. You could have a myriad of starfields, all in one show, if that floats your boat.

My point is, no longer is "the quality of the starfield" you project necessarily dependent upon the vendor from whom you buy the equipment. The quality and methods of the video projection itself are the new arguing points.

So, given all this folderol, I'm left wondering what to do when trying to fill in a field called "Projector model" in my database. The combination of software and hardware — basically a computer hooked up to a video projector — certainly doesn't seem like the unique, specialized planetarium star projectors I've been keeping track of in my database all these years.

Which brings me to this: if there is no significant star projector in a planetarium anymore, why would/should anyone try to keep track of such things anymore? I suppose I could maintain an equipment list inventory for a given planetarium facility — but does this really matter to anyone anymore? Did it ever?

It used to be that a planetarium staff would renovate its theater, and upgrade the star projector to a more capable model, and THAT was a significant event. Planetarians wanted to be sure their published entries included mention that "the planetarium was refurbished" in a certain year. These days, one can swap out computers, operating systems, video projectors... and it's just routine, no big deal. You can have the WhizBang 1500XLT video projector, and upgrade to the MondoWhup 3200EXS, and no one but the accountant will raise an eyebrow. Of course, it used to be you had to save up the capital over several years to upgrade; nowadays you can buy entire fulldome systems for the cost of an upgrade of yesteryear.

The "that was then, this is now" philosophy is brought home even more strikingly, when at conferences and such we hear comments like, "This fulldome stuff isn't even about planetariums any more; it's just video games under a dome."

Again, "what in the heck is a planetarium anymore?"

Let's say you build a new facility, and beneath your dome you put seats and video projectors, the computers and software, the sound system, and all. On Central Park West in New York City, they call such a place the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and they show their stuff to more than a million people a year. A couple of miles away is another facility where beneath their dome they've put video projectors, the computers and software, the sound system, and all. It's in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. What makes one a planetarium and the other not? Or can one even make the distinction? Is it the content, the show material presented? Granted, the facility's mission statements are different, but still. Produced in dome master form, a show created by either facility could show on the other's theater's equipment. Madame Tussaud's already runs the London Planetarium; with a simple change of signage, they could have another one in New York City if they wanted.

Still in New York, but farther "down the road" on Long Island, you can see the Loch Ness Productions planetarium show "HUBBLE Vision" in classic (slide-based) form at the Vanderbilt Planetarium. A little farther east on Long Island, you can see "HUBBLE Vision" in fulldome video form on the Digitalis Digitarium Alpha at the planetarium of Suffolk County Community College in Selden. From the audience's viewpoint, the visual material that appears on the dome is the same, or pretty close; the soundtracks are identical. One facility has a classic star projector and banks of slide projectors; the other has a video projector and computer in a box. Each one bills their theater as a planetarium. It's obvious to me the argument about "fulldome being just fancy video games and not a planetarium" is demonstrably spurious, especially in this example, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear more similar wails in the future.

We've even heard it said that the types of shows Loch Ness Productions creates aren't really planetarium shows at all. If one limits the definition of "planetarium show" to "a show of a planetarium projector" then that could be true. Our multimedia style shows are definitely not analog star projector demonstrations — no explanations of how the machine in the center of the room displays diurnal motion and latitude movement, for instance. But they are presentations optimized for display in a planetarium environment — darkened room, stars on the dome overhead, theater sound. And frankly, when hundreds of places calling themselves planetaria run our shows, by default, our programs have to be called planetarium shows!

Still, the definition of "planetarium" is kind of crumbling at this point. Many digital dome theaters debate whether or not to even use the term "planetarium" with regard to what they do. Said one executive director of a museum with a fulldome theater: "the minute you start mentioning the word "planetarium," what you're saying is 'Boring!'" The theater director had to come up with a good reply to that.

Yes, using the term planetarium when billing a digital dome theater can indeed by quite limiting, especially when you can show any content in your theater, not just the astronomy topics. Why associate yourself with and reinforce the negative impressions given our hallowed term "planetarium" by TV shows such as "South Park" and "WKRP in Cincinnati"? Perhaps we at Loch Ness Productions should come up with a more appropriate term for billing our creations; maybe calling them "planetarium shows" isn't doing them justice, especially in their fulldome video form.

But if we're no longer planetarium show producers, what in the heck are we? Must we succumb to that overwrought descriptor: "content providers"? As John Stoke astutely opined, "Shakespeare was not a content provider!"

It's these sorts of things that drive me batty late at night.

Regardless of the definition of planetarium, I can safely say that since the time I started keeping track, the world's population of these danged domed things has doubled. What was once a very unique specialty is now commonplace — a commodity. Is this a good thing, or too much of a good thing? Now anyone and everyone can have a planetarium in the comfort of their own computer — as well as an audio recording studio, a video editing studio, a photo lab, a library, and with Internet access, "live" images from Mars and Saturn piped in daily for free. A marvelous world we live in, when something that once was miraculous and wonderful is now routine, eh? Or not.

In conclusion, then, I return to the basic question:

"What in the heck is a planetarium anymore?"