Lost in Space

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(Photo: Seventy-five years folks. Can we dust the exhibits now?)

The folks at the Adler Planetarium are surely mad. According to their visitor map, the septuagenarian hemisphere on the lake is aiming to be the nation’s premiere institution for helping common folk learn about astronomical science. Whatever Adler executive signed off on that aspirational announcement must think that 1990s interactive computer technology still packs them in. It doesn’t. (Adler chair Frank Clark and president Paul Knappenberger, why do I suspect your office computers are still beige?)

I’ve lived in Chicago for four-and-a-half years. Yet, although I’ve visited every other Hogtown museum numerous times, it took me all those years to finally visit the Adler. Growing up in New York City, my childhood was packed full of trips to Gotham’s Hayden Planetarium in tow of my Manhattan-loving grandmother. There’s a limit to the number of plastic hanging planets a person can view in one lifetime, so that may explain my heretofore planetarium intransigence.

But my time left in Chicago potentially growing shorter, back in town yesterday I figured I’d finally give in and get me some Zeiss sky projector goodness. I expected an environment filled with children-aimed, science-light exhibits. Well I got that. But what I also got were rooms full of tired, old, dated, allegedly technically savvy exhibits that obviously hadn’t been touched or, in some cases, dusted or potentially even plugged in since the Adler completed its much-heralded renovation and expansion…in 1999. Don’t get me started on the occasionally dog-eared, faded signage.

I didn’t expect the Hayden. Well not the new one, anyway. New York City’s reconstructed planetarium truly is the nation’s premiere planetary science museum. Astounding, cutting-edge architecture, technology, and programming make the new Hayden a tough act to follow. Unfortunately, the Adler barely held a candle to the old Hayden. Had I found a 1960s-inspired, dark-light, walk-through diorama of the 1969 moon shot at the Adler, I wouldn’t have been much surprised.

Given the money that the Hayden gets given, maybe, just maybe I could have forgiven the Adler’s tired upper tier of exhibits–the lower-level exhibits fare better, but really only marginally. But sitting through an overpriced, under-long (25 minutes??) sky show riddled with broken effects and boring pseudo-science really took the cake. The secret of Egyptian Nights: Secrets of the Sky Gods–they’re boring! And that’s when they appear and you’re not listening to the hyperbolic narration while watching an unexpectedly suddenly darkened dome and wondering whether any maintenance monies were deferred from the Adler’s operating budget recently.

Said one-half of the couple seated in front of me as we left the Sky Theater at show’s end, “That wasn’t exactly one of their better offerings.” There’s the understatement of the year. Had I actually paid to get into the Adler, by this point I’d have beaten a path down to the ticket counter and demanded a refund. (I’m a member of Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art and we get into the Adler for free–but don’t become a member of the NMMA just for that dubious benefit–do it for the cool complimentary entrance to the Chicago History Museum instead.)

Yes, I know the Adler was the nation’s first planetarium. But you can only live on your laurels for so long. I mean, let’s face it. If the Museum of Science and Industry can finally stop pretending that a Boeing 727 is modern airplane technology, the least the Adler can do is install a few touch screens and hire a web developer with Director experience to snazz up the Atmospheres on Other Planets video kiosk.

Chicago deserves much better than a planetarium lost in space–or in the case of the Adler, time. Good thing the place is stuck all the way at the end of Solitary Drive. It saves the staff from having to hear the snickering from the more clued-in institutions that also call Museum Campus home.

My apologies to Sue and Sharks at the Shedd. Next time, guys, I promise, the day is all yours.

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