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Manfred Olson Planetarium Director Reflects On Lessons From The Pandemic

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Manfred Olsen Planetarium
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UW-Milwaukee
After 15 months of virtual programming, the Manfred Olson Planetarium on UW-Milwaukee's campus is preparing to welcome the public back to in-person events starting in September.

Starting next month, UW-Milwaukee’s Manfred Olson Planetarium will welcome people back for public events after a year of only hosting virtual events.

It’s an exciting milestone for astronomy contributor Jean Creighton, who directs the planetarium. She recalls some of the feelings she was having at the beginning of the shutdown in March of 2020:

"I don’t think I had capacity to think about the long term. I think I was grasping ... just going from week to week," says Creighton. "My first response about the planetarium was, I was frightened. I thought, oh they might just say we’re just closing this. My first, visceral response was fear."

She knew in principal going remote was possible, and very early in the shutdown Creighton says she was "given a gift" by being asked to develop a series of family programs for the UWM Alumni Association.

That program was "Stars Have Stories." Creighton created nine 15 minute segments with room for 15 minutes of virtual audience questions. "This sounds perhaps like a fairly small project, but I estimate that every 15 minutes took me about eight hours to prepare... It was a real eye-opener," she notes.

This first project made her realize that virtual programming was possible for the planetarium in the long run, and it also offered something in-person settings didn't.

"Yes, I miss having a live audience asking questions in person, and I miss looking around the room ... but people put [questions] in the chat. And that's interaction ... and it also gives voices to people who might not have asked a question in-person. So I perked up," says Creighton.

From June of 2020 to June of 2021 the planetarium had 14,000 people engage in their programs. About 80% engaged in real time with the programs and 20% watched on-demand according to Creighton.

Viewing the night sky through the planetarium's equipment is a unique experience that isn't easy to replicate outside of the building. In fact, Creighton says "we couldn't and we didn't try," during the shutdown.

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Image courtesy of Manfred Olson Planetarium
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Manfred Olsen Planetarium director Jean Creighton (center) with staff inside of the planetarium.

"The sky that's produced in a planetarium you can't [replicate it]. If it was easy to do then planetariums would've gone out of business," she notes. "We did try a bit of virtual stargazing and using software, but I decided that given that we were virtual it made more sense to make programs shorter, to focus on the topic, to give extra time for questions because people did ask more questions. And that's exciting in and of itself that you've inspired curiosity and now people want more."

Another major benefit of virtual programming for the planetarium was the ability to bring in experts outside of Milwaukee — even outside of the country. "I don't think I was thinking in those terms before COIVD ... but now I see I have options," adds Creighton.

The planetarium’s first public event, Stars & S’mores, will be free and held outdoors on September 1st — something Creighton is very much looking forward to.

"I can't wait to have a full house ... The possibility of sharing a beautiful night sky with a full house in the planetarium is thrilling to me now," she says.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
Dr. Jean Creighton has always been inspired by how the cosmos works. She was born in Toronto, Ontario and grew up in Athens, Greece where her mother claims she showed a great interest in how stars form from the age of five.
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