Planetarium Presenting

Planetaria are those special dome-like theaters where, in present day, one can learn through visual immersion about more topics then astronomy! Since 2004, I have enjoyed introducing the general public to the stars across the world, including at the…

  • Stardome observatory in Auckland, New Zealand (2004, mechanical projector)
  • Albert Einstein planetarium in the National Air & Space Museum (2006, mechanical projector)
  • Charles F. Hagar planetarium at San Francisco State University (2006 – 2010, mechanical projector)
  • University of Alaska Anchorage Planetarium (2010 – 2013, digital projection)
  • Star Lab, Penn State Center for Science Outreach Exploration-U events (January 2019 - present, mechanical projection)
  • Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics Planetarium (March 2019 - present, mechanical projection)

Many people think of a planetarium as a place one can visit to view an artificial night sky. The Oxford English Dictionary cites that this meaning of a planetarium can be traced back to a dictionary definition by Encycl. Brit. XVII. 1000 in 1929:

Planetarium is the name given to an arrangement made by Zeiss of Jena, for producing an artificial sky. By optical methods images of the sun, moon, planets and stars are projected on a large hemispherical dome and by mechanical and electrical means the apparatus can be revolved so as to show the principal motions.

More recently, planetaria are used to produce many more kinds of images and motions than that of the artificial night sky. Before the COVID19 quarantine, the Fiske planetarium in Boulder, Colorado showcased 16 planetarium films, ranging from topics of bears in Alaska to how telescopes reveal the wonders of the universe beyond Earth.

Recently, learning spaces like planetaria, museums, and art galleries, have been critically analyzed in terms of how they produce decoupled projection of objects from the systems in which they are embedded. Enclosing natural objects within cases, or creating images of natural phenomenon does something to our understanding of- and relationship to- these phenomena. So one might ask, how did these kinds of learning spaces became desirable?

Foucault (in The Order of Things) describes that in the 1700s and 1800s, studies of mechanism (classifying and relating phenomena through naming) and theology both conflicted and supported one another to produce a science of life. Observing and documenting visible characteristics of phenomena instatiated a particular rationality of this science, at the same time that it produced knowledge of humans as discoverers of consequent “objects”-in-phenomena (p. 127) The normalization of this endeavor produced an “obligation” to establish an anachronistic natural history of objects. “What had changed [in the analyses from the previous century] was the space in which it was possible to see [objects] and from which it was possible to describe them. (p. 131)” In present day natural history museums, “objectivizing” involves the clinical gesture of “outlining’ and ‘slicing’ of things into epistemic categories” (Normand in Art in the Anthropocene, p. 69) which has the effect denaturalizing objects at the same time that it naturalizes borders between and among objects through the subjectivity of the observer.

To combat the creation of subjectivities that accept such artificial differentiations as normal and true, which has the consequence of rendering humans as distinct from and above the dynamics of the natural world, Normand suggests that those persons responsible for representing natural phenomena in objectivized form develop a “boundary practice” that clarifies dynamic aspects of the limits they project. Specifically, if the boundaries (e.g., the artificial planetarium sky denaturalized from the phenomenon it represents) are represented in such a way that what is made visible is how such boundaries free natural phenomena from systems of relations and consequently render them in dept to the conditions of their appearance, then the truth about such objects as natural will be called into question.

Reflecting on Foucault and Normand’s archaeologies, I think about how the shape and boundaries of planetaria render the night sky an object of inquiry, and in addition, with video technologies, an object for entertainment. Such conditions mark the night sky as an object with a natural history, one which humans are entitled and destined to discover. I also think about how planetaria render views of the night sky as free from uncomfortable temperatures, bugs, and light pollution, thereby displacing humans from the need to contend with their natural environment – the systems of relations in which they are embedded. Finally, the naturalized borders create a condition of audience members’ experiencing a phenomena rather than a representation. While as a planetarium presenter myself, I give tips on how to find constellations using bright stars as guides, I often wonder how many audience members try to put things learned “inside” with things learned “outside” the conditions of learning. Foucault and Normand encourage me to think about how I can use the dynamic between presentation and observing in planetaria as a means to cultivate boundary practices in favor of scrutinizing humans’ impacts on their environment. I argue that the desired impacts of planetarium shows focused on climate change and conservation education – namely public awareness and motivation to act – may be enhanced if their presentation also address the binarizing conditions that make possible their production.