It has been something of a struggle over the years for the people of the Minnesota Planetarium Society. They’ve been trying to get a planetarium in Minneapolis for some time now, but for a number of reasons (not their fault) this has proved too difficult. Now there is good news. The Bell Museum, which is part of the University of Minnesota, will “absorb” the planetarium project, and eventually, there may very well be a dome that will replicate the night sky in Minnesota. I spoke with Nathan Laible, the Board Chair of the widely respected Minnesota Planetarium Society about the Planetarium Project, its rocky history, and it’s very exciting future.
The Bell Museum’s board will now include a member of the Minnesota Planetarium Society. The board, and the director of the museum, as well as the University’s top administrators all have a “desire to add a physical planetarium theater dome to the Bell Museum,” according to Laible. Before that, however, the existing Planetarium Society’s ExploraDome program will continue. If you are local to the twin cities, you may have seen a version of that at one event or another. They actually have a big huge bag that they inflate and it turns into a real planetarium! It is quite amazing. Over the short term, there will be integration of the Planetarium Society’s educational activities with the Bell, and over the long term, Laible hopes, “the planetarium will be constructed as an addition to the current Bell’s location.”
I asked Laible why the original plan of building a planetarium in downtown Minneapolis did not work out, and it turns out that it is pretty much what you might expect: The economy over the last several years has not been conducive to the kind of philanthropy needed. Indeed, some potential donors probably felt that they needed to contribute more than usual to human services, given the cutbacks that have happened in those areas. In addition, the efforts to build the planetarium conflicted in time with parallel efforts to build a new library for the city. Something had to give.
“The delay actually allowed us to concentrate on piloting, then growing our ExploraDome traveling program which is an unabashed hit with educators and students. So we stayed busy and are very proud of the ExploraDome, which continues on with even stronger backing,” he said. “We now are supported by the University of Minnesota, the leaders and staff of the Bell and the CFANS college, not to mention the University of Minnesota Foundation which has significant fundraising expertise and demonstrated success with capital projects. The U of M knows how to build buildings.”
Indeed, they do.
And, they are good a press releass too. Here’s what the U is saying about the project:
“This agreement provides a strong foundation for the award winning ExploraDome program,” says Susan Weller, executive director of the Bell Museum. “It ensures the program will continue to inspire and educate children and adults statewide, and it will increase the opportunities to use the ExploraDome’s immersive visualization technology for undergraduate education and faculty research. The agreement also strengthens Minnesota’s regional network of eight planetariums.”
A number of factors brought the Bell Museum and MNPS together in discussions that began a year ago. First, both organizations have a successful history of providing enhanced classroom programming in science education to K-12 schools. Second, the ExploraDome’s visualization technology will give university faculty additional opportunities to support the emerging field of visualizing scientific research, as well as evaluating the technology’s applications in educational settings. Third, there is growing recognition of the importance of a strong, multifaceted approach to science education to support Minnesota’s business community.
Once we have a local Planetarium, maybe we’ll get a bunch of local Neil dGrasse Tysons! That’s how he got started.