SXSW 2019 - Dome Invasion

Every March, thousands of creatives descend on Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals. While many are familiar with the SXSW Music Festival, SXSW also hosts a conference designed to celebrate the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries. Founded in 1987, SXSW brings together leaders in each of these fields to present about emerging trends and topics.

Monica Bolles and I were invited by Dani LeBlanc, director of the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science Boston, to join her and James Wetzel, co-producer of adult programming at the Museum of Science Boston, to speak on a panel titled “Do it in a Dome! The Planetarium as an Arts Medium.” Each of us had the opportunity to share our stories of utilizing planetarium domes in new and innovative ways to engage with audiences by highlighting artistic programs and events. With the advent of digital projection systems in planetariums, and the rise in popularity of these systems during the early 2000’s, the possibilities for what can be presented on the dome screen are no longer limited to stars and other celestial objects. This change in technological capabilities has opened up opportunities for new approaches to creating content for dome spaces and enabled the creation of impressive immersive art experiences.

Image Courtesy: Museum of Science Boston

Image Courtesy: Museum of Science Boston

At the Museum of Science, Dani and James, along with the rest of their production team, have been organizing collaborations with the Boston creative community to extend their programming beyond solely science and educational shows. Science museums struggle to attract young adults without children and even James felt like the museum didn’t offer experiences for him before coming to the museum. Now he’s part of changing that dynamic and has been helping to design alternative content that can attract different audiences then what science museums are currently seeing. One way they've found to interact with their local creative community is through hosting live music performances in the dome. Combined with stunning visuals projected onto the dome’s surface, performer and audience alike are transported on an audio-visual journey in ways traditional venues simply cannot do. Dani and James have also explored hosting drag performances in the planetarium. The shows started as a surprise pop-up performance after their "Lady Gaga Experience" show but have since become a mainstay on their own. The producers at the museum work alongside local drag show producer Ian Diver to create these unique immersive performances, and have received support from the leadership at the museum, a great response from the local creative community, and even some impressive media coverage. Though there may be people who are surprised that a science museum would be putting on a live music performance or hosting a drag show, the team believes that in order to stay relevant to today's audiences, science museum’s should be experimenting and broadening the horizons of what they can offer the community.

Image Courtesy: Museum of Science Boston, Jonathan Beckley

At the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery (FCMoD), where I am the Dome Theater Manager for the Otterbox Digital Dome, we hope to encourage future dome artists and creatives through our DomeLab program. DomeLab is a regular meetup that offers the opportunity for anyone from the public to come to the Dome to learn how to create immersive experiences, and to work with other creatives on projects to be presented in the space. This free program is open to anyone who wants to flex their creativity, whether they are a filmmaker, storyteller, musician, painter, photographer, or work with another medium; all are welcome. If you’re in the Northern Colorado area, come participate and create the next generation of immersive experiences in the dome. In addition to opening up the Dome to individual artists, we also create opportunities for organizations and artists in the Fort Collins creative community to engage with the museum through collaborative events and projects. One of the longest running collaborations we have been involved in is the hosting of the Fort Collins Fringe Festival, an annual performing arts festival that celebrates unconventional and original theater and live performance in unique spaces. Being a venue for Fringe, we have inspired and co-produced performances that have used the dome to add a whole new dimension and level of creativity to immersive theater. Collaborations like these are an important aspect of the museum’s place in our community as we create connections and opportunities for learning and discovery in not just science but also art, music, and culture.

At first glance it may seem unusual that planetariums, historically facilities for educating the public on astronomical topics, are now branching out and offering new experiences like live music, drag shows, or immersive art performances. While the mission of planetariums to communicate science and astronomy to the public is absolutely vital, through these unique events and alternative programs, organizations like Museum of Science Boston, FCMoD, and others are finding new ways to attract audiences that wouldn't normally consider the local museum ‘a place for them’. Using planetariums for the arts not only expands what was previously thought possible in these spaces; it is also changing the ways in which people are interacting with them. As these new audiences are finding that these spaces are welcoming and inclusive, they are becoming not only audience members but also co-creators of the future of immersive experiences and storytelling. Without these varied and diverse perspectives and voices, planetarium domes will likely find it difficult to grow and evolve to serve the varied needs of future audiences.


Couldn't make it to SXSW to hear us speak? Check out the audio recording of the panel presentation here: “Do it in a Dome! The Planetarium as an Arts Medium.