Planetariums: education or entertainment?

As you know, two of the major functions of museums are education and entertainment. David Leake, who is director of the Staerkel Planetarium (and a former student), asked an interesting question about planetariums, which are akin to museums, or include museums, depending on how you look at it:

Why do some planetariums focus on education while others focus on entertainment?

Before reading what he found, you have to know that astronomers study circles. The objects–stars, planets, galaxies, etc–are roughly circular and so are the ways they move in orbits. Diameter then becomes a very important thing to know. So, for example the sun is 100 times the diameter of the earth and as a result 1 million times as massive.

It turns out that planetariums are also circular. As their diameter doubles, their volume and hence cost go up 8-fold. Dave found that planetariums smaller than 75 feet in diameter are low-budget operations, which focus on education. They open up as needed, host school groups, and have programs designed to teach. Above 75 feet they shift to a focus on entertainment. There are high-interest shows (Harry Potter recently) with stiff admission charges.

Dave’s study (a masters thesis) is so beautiful, not only because it provides a plausible and empirically-supported account of a major divide in the field, but also because the account itself (in terms of diameter) is so well-suited to the object of study.

The closest analogy I can come up with for other types of museums is that museums for young people focus on both education and entertainment. They’re all about exploring what’s new, especially through all the senses. As the audience ages the museums gradually shift the emphasis to preserving artifacts. There’s less attention to employing all the senses, and more on conveying the needed information. Is that because the older folks become more conscious of preservation? Or have their senses dulled, so they just want to get the answer in the least amount of time?

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