Griffith Observatory: Entertainment, Education, or Both?

partial view of and from griffith observatory at night, by c.v. johnsonYou may recall a post I did some time ago about a worrying development at Griffith Observatory, just before it reopened after the splendid three year refurbishment. (See here for my long post -with pictures- of my visit to the facility around the time of its reopening.) Various reports said that they’d decided to hire actors (not trained in the subject of astronomy) to largely replace the lecturers (trained in the subject of astronomy) for the new planetarium show. This seemed a very disturbing turn of events, and so I did the blog post about it.

Well, I’d put the issue out of my mind until a few weeks ago when Jerry Weil, one of the show’s creators, showed up in the comments section (I love Google) and made his case for why the new show was just fine. Among the things he said in his comments were:

With the new structure of the shows, there is no time for a Q&A period, so there is no need for the lecturers to have any knowledge of astronomy. It is important to keep the show exciting and entertaining, but the star of the show should be the visuals.

Now, I have not seen the show, and so cannot comment in detail on its contents, or the setting, but I am -to say the least- very worried about such a statement. So I asked him to unpack the statement a bit more, thinking that I may have misunderstood. His clarification:

As far as the role of the lecturers, I was certainly one of the people who originally thought it was an unnecessary burden to have live lecturers when a canned narration would work just as well. After seeing the show, I have to say that having someone there live really adds to the excitement of the show. It makes it “feel” more interactive, and it certainly keeps your attention knowing there is a live human there speaking. However, since it is all scripted and there is no Q&A, it is not necessary for the lecturers to have any knowledge of astronomy. I am also an actor myself (in fact I had coincidentally worked with the actor/lecturer at the show I saw), and I have certainly played many roles in areas where I had no prior knowledge. In this situation it’s more important to have people who can convey the excitement and wonder of the Universe than to have a deep understanding of the subject matter.

Not wanting to repeat my often-made point that education and entertainment need not be thought of as mutually exculsive, I made a mental note to see the show and revisit this issue if I thought I could contribute further.

Remarkably, a few days later I was at a party at a neighbour’s house (Cinco De Mayo), and it was a great opportunity to meet some more neighbours. Among those were some people with whom I bonded over the issue of Education, Science, Media, Society, Entertainment, and combinations thereof (you know, the usual things I bang on about). The issue of the Observatory Planetarium show came up (I can’t recall who brought it up) and I discovered that I was talking to someone who used to be one the lecturers! I learned there that the discussion was still ongoing, and that many people were very unhappy with what the show is now, versus what it could be.

Some weeks later (two days ago) a new comment appeared on the post. This time is was from Steve Cooperman, another ex-lecturer from the show (google strikes again). His comment is so detailed and so full of information that I decided to bring it out of the background and include it in a full post. He gives links to articles elsewhere that discuss the issue too (for example, one by Margaret Wertheim in the LA Times). The comment is written mostly as a response addressed at Jerry Weil, who I hope might be interested in engaging in further discussion. I’ll shut up now and let Steve Cooperman take the stage:

Well, allow me to have a say here since I was one of the lecturers displaced. Jerry Weil was concerned that people were dissing his show before it was seen. I’m concerned that he automatically dismisses the importance of having a live lecturer who knows Astronomy without having seen any of our shows!

For supplemental reading, below my comments is a wonderful Op/Ed article I copied from the LA Times site, before it disappears from their online site.

Right now, the article is at: [this link -text reproduced in full at bottom of Steve’s comment -cvj]

The article was from April 29, 2007, very contemporaneous with some of the final comments above. It concerns the hiring of actors over seasoned astronomical lecturers — some of us had been lecturing at Griffith Observatory for well over 20 years.

During the five years of renovation, we lecturers were never told that when Griffith reopened, things would be different. Instead, we worked in good faith during the renovation at the mini-planetarium facility near the L.A. Zoo, expecting to do more of the same: only in much better facilities.

Let me give you more background, just in case you’ve heard the story from only one side: Jerry Weil’s.

When the Observatory reopened, the long-time lecturers were not only NOT invited back, but the salary for the position was cut by a factor of three, and even the actors who were hired were misled as to the salary they would receive.

For most lecturers, rigid rehearsal schedules for the new show made it impossible for those who were full-time teachers or professors to participate. Three of eight long-time lecturers, two of whom were actors who had a background in Astronomy, were able to retain positions (the third because he was on disability from his main job), but only mostly as back-up and exit-door announcers. And they were often belittled by the producer and director of the show, who weren’t even City employees. There was a purposeful attempt to limit the planetarium time of any past lecturer. Since we were teachers, we could have rehearsed during the summer. They purposely waited until the end of summer to keep us from taking any of the positions.

A similar article deriding the hiring of actors to the one I copied below is at: [this link]

Now, many patrons — perhaps as many as 400,000 people — may have already seen a show which offers little explanation of the night sky. The actors read a script, they don’t point out objects in the “night sky” of the planetarium, they cannot answer astronomical questions raised by the presentation for patrons after the show, and people leaving the theatre have been heard to ask, “Is there an adult show?”

In fact, when the actors were hired, the call went out for a specific “type” of person to be a presenter, in defiance of fair hiring practices in Los Angeles; it was a clearly discriminatory call for workers, saying the presenters didn’t even need astronomical backgrounds. If the union can’t handle it, it will eventually go to lawsuit.

400,000 people around Los Angeles have seen Griffith Observatory as a Disneyland and NOT a place to see the night sky well, which can only be done in the planetarium and for only about 5 minutes in the current show. Wait ’til you read the article below which offers a scathing indictment of education at Griffith Observatory!

In preparation for the renovation, Observatory administrators were even allowed to travel to Germany to ask the Zeiss Optical company to completely remanufacture the instrument to allow for a better projected-sky! Then, instead of incorporating the projected sky as a major show component, approximately $2.7M was spent in video-rendering the presentation to make it more “Hollywood” instead of explanatory.

What a waste of resources for a $7M instrument (NOT $3M, Dr. Weil!) The current cost of the show is in excess of $1400 per second of show time. That doesn’t include the projector which may never be used to any large extent in any future planetarium show if the high-tech methods continue to prevail. Even the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon has a projection system which is hard to focus, as I saw — Leonard Nimoy’s short is great, but it should not be the only piece projected there.

[A short aside on the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon since Mr. Nimoy’s generous philanthropy is renowned: Very little has been planned for the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon, and, as I mention below, when I saw Mr. Nimoy’s short and excellent re-introduction to Griffith Observatory, I was shocked to see that the focus needed adjustment. I was told that focus has always been difficult. Perhaps it’s already been fixed in the past two months since my last visit.

There is so much more that can be done in that venue, and plans for its development are almost non-existent. For example, a feed could have been provided into the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon so that, days after reopening, it could have provided a unique view of the transit of Mercury, with live explanation, to hundreds of people at a time. As far as I know, no one even thought of that. Will it show the lunar eclipse coming up later this year? Are there any special lectures being planned for it, now, six months after reopening?

Now, it is only a “place” in which to hear about the new building. I would like for it to be an “experience”, equivalent to Mr. Nimoy’s generosity.]

It is often quoted that Colonel Griffith J. Griffith’s experience of seeing Saturn through the telescope on Mt. Wilson was the inspiration for the founding of Griffith Observatory: public astronomy that would inspire.

But when Griffith was inspired on Mt. Wilson, it wasn’t in a vacuum; he had astronomers by his side to talk to and ask questions of. THAT is why he wanted the citizens of Los Angeles to have the same experience, and why he ceded the land to the City for Griffith Observatory.

Dr. Weil, why are you so dead-set against a live interaction with someone who knows Astronomy? Even the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a Public Education Office, and one of the past guides from Griffith Observatory works there as one of the main managers!

NOT having an adequate explanatory experience in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium at Griffith Observatory thus might even abrogate the Charter ceding the site to the City for public use!

According to the article below, the only questions that guides and performers can answer are those that they’ve been told to speak from their scripts. Isn’t that rather mechanical? Is that in keeping with YOUR experiences in life?

When you go to your dentist, for example, do you expect that he or she is an actor? If you need a firefighter, do you want an actor to show up? How about your families’ school teachers. Should they be actors, too? Isn’t it a sham that people come to Griffith Observatory to hear about astronomy, and since it’s a “live” show, they OF COURSE expect to hear an Astronomer, and they only get an actor? When a Mars Rover makes a great discovery about finding, say, water on Mars, does an actor run the press conference? What makes you think that actors are really the people that visitors want to hear? When people go to a Britney Spears concert, they really DO expect to hear Britney Spears, NOT someone lip-synching.

That’s what visitors get at Griffith Observatory now: lip-syncing.

It’s fine to spread awe and wonder — we all want that. My main inspirations, intellectual and spiritual — come from the sky!

It’s the method that’s in question. We all know, as long-time teachers or learners, that students/people learn best when there is interaction. And those are the people who will eventually vote yea or nay on future ballot propositions to keep Griffith afloat. It was a $63M ballot measure in Los Angeles that allowed the project to get started, and I believe that the people of Los Angeles need an accounting for how that money was spent.

There are still telescopes at Griffith Observatory from which the public can learn about the sky, but we all know that viewing is limited by light pollution. THE major innovation since Griffith’s time in seeing the night sky is the planetarium, and visitors are not even allowed to ask questions during or after the show, and the actors can’t answer any. They were hired because they LACK that knowledge. More people can see planetarium shows per day than can look through the telescope.

And after 5 years of renovation, the Observatory wasn’t even ready to produce a School Visitation program when it reopened. Now, more than 1/2 year later, students can visit in classes, but they are NOT seeing shows in the planetarium. How can they begin to dream about the Universe, how can they fit their current lives into the reality of Global Warming, if they don’t even see the sky?

On the day that Margaret Wertheim’s wonderful Op/Ed piece, below, appeared in the L.A. Times, there was an article in the Ventura County Star where Dr. Krupp is quoted as saying that the stars over Los Angeles are difficult to see. One would think that seeing them for longer than 5 minutes in the excellent planetarium sky would be even more important, since that sight would be truly inspirational view of the sky to the people of Los Angeles. And it really is 5 minutes or less of constellations, and barely a couple minutes more showing planetary motions. Not even the night sky for the evening is being projected!

That article about the disappearing night sky is at: [this link]
(You might have to register to read it, or I can copy it for you.)

Dr. Weil, let me be a bit more specific about what’s wrong with the presentations in the planetarium right now. While the musical score of CIU is really wonderful, when my family saw the show (twice) on the 2nd evening for employees, one actor was far better than the other. It was good to hear that they don’t say the same things, contrary to the instructions I was told they had — to adhere strictly to a script — because there were particular phrases I remembered from one show that were not in the other.

But the sound track overpowered both the actors occasionally, making it difficult to discern what they were saying, so I would suggest that they control their own volumes, or equivalently, the volume of the music. It would be a shame if the actors couldn’t be heard . . . One actor sounded as if she had a very dry mouth — very obvious over the sound system. Another actor was a lot more animated — he was much more “into” the material. So, from my own experience, I can’t say that they are all doing a professional job, and I know that what they were doing is easily within the ken of all or most of the planetarium lecturers who worked at Griffith before the reopening. Except the actors are missing the experience of interacting with an audience the way that Colonel Griffith interacted with astronomers on Mt. Wilson.

Isn’t it easier to give lecturers some vocal tips and encourage them in acting roles that to take actors and make them astronomers? We often hear about school boards who don’t have someone to teach, say, Physics, and all of a sudden, one of the Physical Education teachers is teaching the subject. That, my friends, is what is going on at Griffith Observatory. And since they are actors, as soon as a better role comes along, they will abandon Griffith Observatory. And if they don’t, then they’re not even good actors.

It is the lecturers who have stuck with Griffith Observatory through thick and thin — in my case, 30 years — who deserve to continue there.

One other small point: I think that the actors should use the laser pointer themselves to point out the one constellation described (the Great Bear) because the computer operator in the 2nd show was all over the place with it — he had NO idea how far south and west of the Great Bear he was really pointing! I guess he needed to look at the screen while he was pointing out the stars. (Pointing out the Big Dipper was far easier.) Instead of accountability being in the hands of one person, now there are three or four involved in a show. What a waste!

There are rumors that even the school shows planned for the future will be highly-scripted, with little give-and-take allowed for students in the planetarium. It would be as if school kids in every classroom in Los Angeles watched TV all day, with no interaction with their teacher. At least one LAUSD school board member is dismayed at the situation at Griffith Observatory.

Even at the mini-planetarium near the Zoo, students saw presentations on the Night Sky.

Now, scouts and even students taking college-level Astronomy classes throughout the Southland and up to Santa Barbara, have no use for Griffith Observatory because the sky is no longer seen in the planetarium! Teachers and professors are refusing to send their students there because there is nothing in the planetarium that can’t be seen elsewhere. The grand sky view is not being shown.

There is a growing public outcry against the programming at Griffith Observatory. Someone should be held accountable for why, during “Astronomy Day”, Griffith Observatory offered NO special programs or tours having to do with the occasion, other than the already-planned, monthly star-party sponsored by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society.

Dr. Weil, this is NOT to say that there isn’t a place at Griffith Observatory for “Centered in the Universe.” But it is more akin to what “Laserium” was — entertainment with no explanation — than it is to a topical lesson in what is going on in space. It is a jumble of many topics strung together, but no depth is offered for any of them. And while the program is visually stunning and a great accomplishment in the planetarium field, its video effects are dark, and people see things like that all the time on PBS or in IMAX theatres, and in those venues, it’s brighter, let alone the occasions I’ve mentioned when the actors cannot be heard because they are drowned out by the musical score.

What the planetarium can do best is to project the night sky, and for most of the current show, that backdrop is used as “wallpaper”.

Dr. Weil, you are so used to CGI effects that you now believe that the real Universe can only be seen by computer animating it. There are many different methods of education — not just a light show with no explanation — should be seen at Griffith Observatory. They would make the difference between a population living on the edge of educational darkness and the vibrant light of what could be their 21st century educational future. Griffith Observatory is in the middle of not only a diverse population of those whose education is scientifically deficient — it is also located in one of the premiere astrophysical and aeronautical capitals of the world.

— Steve

From the Los Angeles Times:


The Griffith Observatory’s glittery new show is told by actors instead of real scientists.
By Margaret Wertheim

MARGARET WERTHEIM is director of the Institute for Figuring, an L.A.-based organization that promotes public engagement with science and mathematics.

April 29, 2007

WHEN THE Griffith Observatory revamped its planetarium, the board of directors rightly turned to a cadre of experts to produce what is one of the most sensational shows anywhere.

Courtesy of a custom-tailored Zeiss Star Projector, a digital-laser projection system and stunning special effects, we fly through the Milky Way, watch a “Big Bang” simulation, see a re-creation of ancient Alexandria and behold the spectacle of galaxies spawning like clouds of thistledown from the pages of astronomers’ notebooks as we tour the universe. How sad that the story accompanying these images is told by actors, not astronomers.

Before the observatory’s $93-million, five-year refurbishment, professional astronomers, mathematicians and teachers, as well as serious amateur sky-watchers, gave hourlong lectures at planetarium shows. Now, in their place, thespians narrate a 22-minute prepared script. The extent of their astronomical knowledge is never tested because there is no time for questions. As soon as the show ends, audiences are shuttled out. This way, observatory officials say, they are running twice as many shows as in 2002, and the planetarium is expected to tally more than 2 million visitors this year.

Recently, I attended a show presented by a deep-voiced, snappily suited man. As the simulated sun set above our heads, he strode down the aisle bearing an orb of light in his hands. With elegant flourishes, he waved this miniature sun through the air as he spoke his lines, explaining how ancient cultures had described the passage from day to night.

Over the next 22 minutes, we heard about Ptolemaic epicycles, the Copernican revolution, the discovery of galaxies, the expansion of the universe, cosmic microwave background radiation, dark matter and dark energy and extraterrestrial life. Along with my eyeballs, my brain felt as if it had been on a roller-coaster ride. I wanted some reflection on what I had seen, but when I inquired about supplemental literature, I was told that the only thing available was a map of the observatory grounds.

Many planetariums cannot afford on-site presenters and make do with a recorded sound track. The Griffith Observatory prides itself on the presence of a live body. But what we are not getting with the glittery new show is a live mind ­ at least not a live astronomical mind. That’s a major loss.

For some years, science educators have stressed the importance of not just imparting knowledge to viewers but of engaging them in scientific issues. Earlier this month, I spoke at a conference on communicating science at the University of Nebraska. Much of the discussion revolved around how we could better explain how science works. Speaker after speaker declared that science is not just a compilation of facts but a set of methods and approaches practiced by living, breathing, idiosyncratic human beings. The trend is to put these faces into the foreground. In short, more contact with working scientists.

At the L.A. County Natural History Museum, for instance, I have been moderating a series of discussions with scientists as part of First Fridays. Attendance has been standing room only, and many audience members stay after the panel discussion to continue talking with our speakers.

At the Griffith Observatory, I watched as a presentation began in front of the giant Tesla coil, a device that generates electrical discharges.

The narrator delivered his scripted spiel with machine-gun rapidity, interspersed with dramatic flicks of a switch that set the coil roiling with lightning bolts. When he completed his monologue, he asked a group of schoolchildren gathered around if they had any questions. A small boy put up his hand:

“Why do you talk so fast?”

“Because I’m an actor,” the young man replied. At that, the children dispersed.

Just before I left, I did encounter a scientist. Sort of. The DVD presentation on the bus that brings you to Griffith Park ends with an exhortation not to forget to have your photo taken with Albert Einstein. In one of the new halls, I found a life-size bronze of the great physicist sitting on a bench looking up at the stars. The place beside him was vacant, and I sat down to join in contemplation of the cosmos.

Despite his immense fame, Einstein made a point of responding to the children who wrote him. What a great pity, I thought, that at the Griffith Observatory, scientists don’t have a chance to interact with children too.

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