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Science in the Sky: The WSU Planetarium

Note: This is the first in our new series, “Scene Around Campus: A Glimpse into WSU’s Corners and Curiosities.” Join us as we explore the many nooks and crannies of campus that residents and visitors might otherwise miss.

Welcome to “The Whoa Moment.”

You’re ushered into a room down a musty hallway. You take a seat, the lights go out, and — after a moment of darkness — the night sky flickers above you, a canopy of fuzzy white dots representing the universe as seen from Pullman. You forget about the world outside as you’re lost in space.

The Washington State University Planetarium is a 1960s star projector tucked away in Sloan Hall. WSU astronomers Michael Allen, Guy Worthey and Ana Dodgen lovingly keep it clean and in working order.

The planetarium is dated and clunky, but the astronomers’ faces light up when they talk about the roughly 2,000 fifth- and sixth-graders who visit every year on field trips.

“The little kids get so excited about what we’re telling them,” Dodgen says. “It’s a way to spark their curiosity in astronomy and science.”

Set up in 1962, the planetarium is likely older than these kids’ parents and possibly their grandparents. Working with the WSU Foundation, the astronomers are trying to collect donations to update the facility with a digital projector. Mostly, they’re hoping for a big donor, someone star-happy enough to hand over $50,000 or $70,000.

“Everyone loves the planetarium, but in terms of loving it enough to empty your wallet … that hasn’t happened yet,” Worthey says.

Within the planetarium, the projector is run from a main console with knobs for each celestial body. There are motors to animate daily, monthly and yearly paths. The console looks like a 1920s radio.

“This is like Frankenstein’s laboratory down here,” Worthey jokes during a recent visit, swinging Mars — a tiny red dot — across the screen.

Despite fuzziness and flickering, the northern hemisphere mostly works. From certain angles, pieces of the projector, a big black globe dotted with pinholes, block much of the rest of the sky. If you pick the wrong seat, the Southern Cross and Alpha Centauri might be obliterated.

The planetarium is closed to the public and used mainly for undergraduate science classes and local middle and elementary schools. However, WSU and community groups can schedule free shows through Allen or the physics department at or 509-335-1279.

Archiving, on their own terms

Back in 2002, Kimberly Christen took a dissertation research trip to the newly opened Darwin branch of the National Archives of Australia.

She saw troves of cultural artifacts — baskets, photos, music recordings and more, including many from the Warumungu Aboriginal community she had been working with since 1995.

The indigenous tribe had little to no access to the materials housed in the faraway archives, open to the public, seen by whomever.

Moreover, if they viewed the archives, there were items they just didn’t want to see.

A slide made by Kimberly Christen shows ways that indigenous artifacts and stories have been handled.

In their culture, as in many indigenous communities, the public exhibits violated their cultural protocols. For example, the Warumungu people do not want to see images of dead relatives. Some items are appropriate only for male or female viewers, while others might be limited by viewers’ age or sacred status within the community.

The Warumungu wanted to view their materials on their own terms.

Over time, Christen, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor in the Washington State University Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies, began researching ways to create a separate digital archive for the community. The archive would include all of the materials from the museum, but within the software, viewing is restricted along culturally appropriate lines. The two archives are kept separate, so Warumungu people can have their own version aside from the public version.

This is all part of the greater trend of repatriation and bringing back in indigenous voices to tell their own stories, she says. It began in the early ‘90s, when museums were ordered to start giving human remains back to their original tribes. Christen has taken that idea and applied it to a new corner of archival work.

“Digital repatriation has taken off,” she says.

The project launched in 2007, and shortly thereafter, indigenous communities from all over the globe began requesting their own version.

In March, Christen received a $49,606 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a free, open-source software that would work for everyone.

For Christen, such archives aren’t about “correcting” or rewriting the record. It’s expanding the record to include the native experience. It’s history with a conscious, she says.

“These materials are theirs … we took this stuff,” she says. (more…)