The Vision of the UWM Planetarium: Sparking Curiosity About Stars and Inspiring Community Conversations

Inside the planetarium during Constellations of the Zodiac in 2018. Photo by UWM Planetarium.

By Allison Beebe, former Planetarium staff member and UWM Journalism, Advertising, and Communications graduate

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Planetarium Director and astronomer Jean Creighton says she is inspired by two things: “I love stars. And I love sharing my enthusiasm for the cosmos with our entire community.”

Fueled by curiosity, the UWM Planetarium seems to take on the personality of its directors and has woven together years of their expertise, making it a center of reliable science education where diversity and connectivity are celebrated under a shared sky.

Attracting 10,000 visitors every year, it has encouraged the exploration of science with live programming on a myriad of astronomy subjects. Under the direction of former Planetarium Director John Harmon and current Director Jean Creighton, the UWM Planetarium has flourished through different eras of science education.

In 1966, Harmon was a student in an introductory astronomy class taught by Manfred Olson, who became the first Director of the UWM Planetarium that eventually bore his name. Harmon was among the first to attend presentations in the newly opened indoor facility and on the observing deck, where he found an opportunity to practice photography. After Olson’s death, Michael Shurman became the second Director and was impressed by Harmon’s photography and astronomy grades, so he offered him an undergraduate position as a teaching assistant. The position progressed into a part-time Assistant Director role and then, after Shurman retired, Harmon was appointed as full-time Director.

“The things I enjoyed the most were researching the various topics for our shows, designing the visual effects that we used and choosing the music and images that accompanied the shows,” Harmon said.

Students walking outside the Manfred Olson Planetarium. Photo provided by UWM Archives.

Harmon developed programming that celebrated the history and innovations of modern astronomy as well as seasonal shows that simulated celestial motion using the same starball projector that has been operating since then.

When the lights in the planetarium are dimmed from “city sky” to “country sky,” Harmon’s craftsmanship remains an enchanting feature of indoor stargazing. The hand-made projections of a swirling galaxy, aurora, nebula, and the sunrise finale that dance across the dome were mechanically challenging to make. Using a sequence of projector slides, Harmon simulated an exploding star that faded into a photograph of the Crab Nebula, which was his most involved in-house projection. Now, in a digital era, visuals like this are typically designed with graphic technologies; and yet, his sunrise effect remains a favorite and his Milky Way galaxy produces the most “wows” from school groups.

In the early 1970s, science communication was approached differently. In the absence of the Internet, astronomy news was disseminated via television newscast, radio broadcast, phone calls, snail mail, and journals but was most often limited to educators or professionals in the field. The UWM Planetarium adopted the central role of communicating discoveries and sharing science with urban audiences, many of whom have never experienced a night sky free of light pollution.

“When I started, shows had a live lecturer, the simulation of the night sky and maybe a few slides,” said Greg Gonia, who worked under Harmon as an undergraduate employee. “Shows now compete with films and television. It may be a bit old fashioned, but when I remember the audience reaction to seeing the stars come out after a simulated sunset, I think there is still a lot to be said for the old ways.”

John Harmon, Greg Gonia, and Jean Creighton at the 50th Anniversary celebration. Photo by Nathaniel Schardin.

Educational programming was offered for off-campus school groups and undergraduate introductory astronomy classes. Later on, public events were held in the Physics building courtyard and observing deck and free Friday night shows in the planetarium were popularized.

“Unfortunately, by the early 80’s things began to change,” Harmon said. Budget and staff cuts forced the UWM Planetarium to shut down for a while, but Harmon continued to offer programs for astronomy classes while all public programming was suspended. Friday night shows eventually returned at a more limited frequency with the implementation of a small admission fee.

In 2005, Jean Creighton, who had been teaching astronomy courses at UWM, became the interim Director when Harmon began packing up for retirement.

Initially, she was reluctant to agree to the position. It was a big departure from researching star formation.

“When I started the position, I realized, this is the job that I was meant to do,” said Creighton.

One of her early brainchildren as the new Director was AstroBreak, a weekly live program presented on higher level astronomy topics. Creighton held the programs each Wednesday during lunch hour for 12 years.

The UWM Planetarium has also hosted events like “Black Hole Bash” and “Einstein’s Last Prediction” that highlighted the work done by the Center for Gravity, Cosmology & Astrophysics (CGCA) on black holes and gravitational waves.

But Creighton was stewing on ideas to reach beyond a niche audience and include diverse people with broad interests.

“I was hoping to open up the UWM Planetarium to as many people as possible,” Creighton said. “Not everybody sees astronomy the same way; many people think of it as something irrelevant, distant and uninteresting.”

So she started to design projects that would hook diverse curiosities. In 2008, Creighton made a few cross-campus connections that developed into valuable projects and lasting friendships. After meeting Robin Mello, a theatre professor, the two collaborated on many projects including “Odyssey Under the Stars,” “The Tale of Scale,” and a National Science Foundation grant proposal. Mello has also offered performance training for UWM Planetarium staff who present in front of live audiences. Creighton’s introduction to WUWM’s Mitch Teich that same year led to more than 140 “astrochats” that are still aired monthly.

The UWM Planetarium’s partnership with the Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies department the following year has since provided students with semester-long internship opportunities. Students who are skilled in digital design, advertising, content writing, and production have increased the Planetarium’s visibility in the community. Other students with technical and astronomy-related training assist with live programming and stargazing equipment.

Through these interdepartmental connections, the UWM Planetarium has become a catalyst for connecting astronomy and other fields.

Nathaniel Schardin, Jean Creighton, Margaret Noodin, and Bernard Perley at Indigenous Voices: Sharing the Wisconsin Sky. Photo by Troye Fox, UWM University Relations and Communications.

“I wanted to bring colleagues from other departments who can share their expertise of other cultural perspectives about the sky with our audiences,” said Creighton. “These partnerships have provided interdisciplinary enriching content.”

Later, cross-campus connections broadened into cultural programming that aimed to include more audiences from different backgrounds and experiences of astronomy. Black History Month’s “Stars, Stories, and Rhythms of Africa” was born from a collaboration with UWM’s Sociocultural Programming and is accompanied by guest performers and a full audience every year. In the spring of 2018, professors Margaret Noodin and Bernard Perley partnered with the UWM Planetarium for “Indigenous Voices: Sharing the Wisconsin Sky,” which shared the cultural connections between the sky and various Wisconsin nations.

“It has been a great few years in a row if you consider the 50th anniversary of the UWM Planetarium in 2016 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019, where we had multiple programs involving units all over campus from chemistry to engineering, from history to health sciences, from the library archives to geosciences.”

Thousands of people scattered across a campus lawn to watch the 2017 solar eclipse. Photo by Elora Hennessey, UWM University Relations and Communications.

The largest event for the UWM Planetarium was the 2017 solar eclipse that attracted an estimated 2,700 people to watch the Moon partially cover the Sun through glasses from NASA.

Creighton and the UWM Planetarium have been recognized for their roles in science education with special opportunities over the years. Later in 2017, astronauts Kathy Sullivan and Scott Kelly met UWM Planetarium staff, and Creighton was asked to introduce Kelly’s lecture in the Union Ballroom. Creighton was also asked to present “Under One Moon” this past August, where she told stories and sang songs in Greek about the Moon in celebration of 50 years of lunar exploration.

“These opportunities help me see more clearly that our UWM Planetarium has a visibility that is broad,” said Creighton. “Our work is noticed, which warms my heart.”