The discussion questions concerning museum typologies difference between natural history and regular ones (if there are such in the metaverse of museums) is somewhat naturally obvious to me from my visits over the decades to some of the big name ones such as AMNH, the Smithsonian and a smaller equivalent at Yale University in the Peabody. Most of my travels to museums have been to Science & Industry types while being an anthropologist and amateur astronomer my focus has not been singularly on natural history museums except as adjuncts to those primary interests.
However, the brief discussion that mentioned planetariums as being part of many large unnatural museums did resurrect my involvement for three years in the early 1990’s when the UAMN was contemplating the big addition that is now appended to the original structure. So this ancient memory will probably eclipse the assigned topic for discussion. Being an amateur astronomer who has put on star parties for public events in Fairbanks and UAMN I was invited to the committee that was entertaining building a planetarium on to the addition. A planetarium in Fairbanks has been on the radar since the 1970’s when the gold dome at Pioneer Park was vacant after the Alaska 1967 Centennial Exposition (A-67) had been taken over from the City by the Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB). That 100′ geodesic dome is now the Pioneer Aviation Museum since the early 1990’s but it had promise for being a large planetarium. We invited many vendors of planetarium hardware to hawk their services for consideration in the design stages to decide on whether such a costly addition would work at UAF. During that time I also made it a point to visit four planetariums outside because there was only one in Alaska at Marie Drake school in Juneau which had been mothballed for several years due to inactivity and staffing. There was also a little 10′ planetarium at the Discovery Center in Downton Anchorage which would be considered a children’s STEAM museum today. Now there are two separate big planetariums in Anchorage, one at the Rasmusson downtown and on campus at UAA. However, owing to budget concerns and space we determined that a stand alone planetarium would not work within the parameters of UAMN’s expansion. But all was not lost on the concept because what is now the theater was a surrogate for an ersatz planetarium with other functions beside a big dome with a star projector which would have been more singular in function. The biggest consideration for building a planetarium addition at UANM was the technology for projectors was not fully formed into the digital world in transition at that time. There were some nascent technological innovations to replace the standard huge ant shaped projectors that rise out from the floor with hundreds of fixed projectors in a pair of spheres looking like what is now an enlarged covid virus on sticks or what was a wooden science learning toy back in my youth consisting of small colored wooden spheres about the size of golf balls with holes drilled in to attach different sticks to make models of what molecules look like. If you go to the two new planetariums in Anchorage they have the digital projectors that have more functions to have multimedia shows other than just stars and planets along with the software upgrade capability to current programs in other disciplines. The impetus to invest in the current state of technology back then was not realized because of this ancient analog hardware being supplanted by malleable digital devices on the horizon.
WARNING TO STUDENTS, WHAT FOLOWS IS A SENIOR RAMBLING OFF TOPIC SIDEBAR: Watching the videos in our assigned topic made me realize the extent to which they all now depend on digital interface devices which must be changed as new technology comes to fore. But there is an expensive caveat to all this streaming media dependence that is now prevalent to entice viewers to be engaged. I was like most others in the audience oohing and awing at the virtual 3D renderings of those that were incredibly immersive and exploratory venues that put the viewer in places they would otherwise not be able to see. This reminded me of the Artic Regional Supercomputer Center (ARSC) visualization lab of a similar multiscreen 3D interactional projector that was in the basement of the Rasmusson library at UAF. It was a small converted storage room near the freight doors in back of the library that had been setup with overlapping projectors which allowed participants to follow along with the show presenters where an audience of about a few dozen could also use additional 3D goggles to fly through the three black and white shows as if they were inside. At the time they had a program consisting of Mars imagery, the recent eruption of an Alaska volcano and a digital reconstruction of the Fairbanks waterfront derived from archival photos of down town buildings around 1910. To do all this digital magic it took the programing power of the massive SUN computers that occupied the entire basement of the Buttrovich building on the west ridge at UAF. This show only lasted about two years and was incredibly awesome to view. But the ARSC was finally not funded by the Department of Defense (DOD) with the 16 million dollars that was budgeted and the program and computers are largely gone. The main funding for ARSC by DOD was prompted by project Desert Storm to make highly accurate digital 3D terrain GPS maps for military drones and combat aircraft that were bombing Iraq during that late 1990’s conflict. This was prior to google earth mapping we enjoy today.
This does point out the volatility of digital technology in museums today and the not so cheap upgrades if you have to scrap this technology to entice visitors to stay. Albeit gate receipts from visitors is only one of the many ways to judge success to make the expense of running new programs to make relevant items for interaction to a museum’s core purpose, it can be fatal to revenue in the long term. Natural history museums probably do have the most buried collections and making exhibits of animal displays and geological phenomena, etc. does pose a problem of size when the field is so broadly based. Plants and fish along with other biota are even tougher due to the need for many millions of species who naturally die and must be preserved in order to be displayed. But as we saw in the videos, these lend themselves to digital avatars from advanced scanning technologies to help archive specimens and allow research in a no hands on medium instead.