Feeling the Stars: Months of Hard Work Turn a Labor of Love into a Reality!
I decided I'd like to chronicle my journey of making planetarium shows in the James S. McDonnell Planetarium accessible for our visitors who are blind or have low vision. I've already done so much work but there's also so much more to be done. This post will serve to recap the last year of work since the conception of this project to now, with future posts following along through our first visitors getting to experience the program.
The project actually started with a class I took for my Masters in Museum Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. We had to create a proposal for an education program that was either new or adapted a current program. Upon looking around my planetarium where I was at that time a volunteer, I started to wonder how visitors who are blind or had low vision could experience the Planetarium and decided my program should focus on this.
The program I proposed, "Feeling the Stars," will serve as a pilot to adapt all our other shows, but the show I picked to start, The Little Star That Could, I picked for a few reasons: 1) It has fantastic content that no matter the age of the viewer (even though it is intended for young children) one can learn something. 2) It is shown in planetariums all over the world (thus we could offer the program to other planetariums, helping them become more accessible too!). 3) It has been in planetariums since 1986 when it was first written, produced and shown in the McDonnell Star Theater at the Saint Louis Science Center (SLSC), which means that it has held its appeal for 27 years now (and will most likely continue to hold that appeal).
Through phase one of the grant, visitors will first be introduced to the space through a tactile model of the theater, allowing them to safely learn about the projector through touch. The show the students/visitors will be seeing talks a lot about stars colors and how they relate to temperature. Since these visitors may never have seen colors before, plush versions of the characters (stars) will be made so that the students/visitors could feel the facial features. These characters are also be microwaveable though (like a Bed Buddy) and heated to different temperatures. That plus the different textures from different fabrics will help visitors grasp these concepts. Visitors will also be given tactile books with raised images of the show so they can follow along with the program by feeling what is happening on the dome. There will also be an iPad option for visitors who had low vision. Phase two will add descriptive audio for the shows and Braille and large print signage on all the exhibits as well, facilitating the self-guided visits (with optional guided tours available upon request).
At the end of the class, I approached my boss and showed him my proposal. He was beyond supportive and we immediately started working with other staff throughout the museum to make my proposal a reality. For nine months we polished and perfected the proposal and toyed with prototypes like this little guy (don’t worry he gets better),
|Little Star (Sol) on the Sun|
and this prototype mini model (bottom) of our planetarium's projector based off of my rendering (top) made by one of our amazing preparators (actual will be a much larger model with a lot more detail)
|Google SketchUp Model of the Zeiss Universarium IX in the StarBay||Mini Prototype Model of the Zeiss Universarium IX Projector (Thanks, Ian!)|
After months of working so hard and pulling everything together, it came time to ask for funding. In August of 2012 we were awarded a grant by Lighthouse for the Blind - Saint Louis to cover the first part of the proposal (which will get us rolling and able to reach our target audience). They've also agreed to match donations to cover the second and third parts of the proposal up to half of the cost! I definitely owe special thanks to my boss, John, to Suzanne, and our wonderful volunteer, Deb for all their support in the process. I’d also like to give a big thank you to John, Stephen and Angie over at Lighthouse for the Blind – Saint Louis. You have all been extremely kind with your time and resources!
One of the first things we got to purchase was an electronic Brailler and it was also the first to arrive which was quite exciting!
|Everything needed to get started and the labeler itself (the blue object); there was even an instruction manual in Braille included.|
Our wonderful volunteer, Deb, who does all our Brailling (and has been teaching me to read and write Braille) was very happy; she had been labeling everything in Braille by hand! This allows her to do more in a short amount of time and keeps her hand from cramping and hurting.
The next order to arrive was the EZ-Form Brailler and Tactile Duplicator. This machine is what I use to produce the books that will contain tactile images from the show as well as tactile star charts. It was very exciting when it showed up in the Planetarium!
|Opening the EZ-Brailler|
|Wonder how I am going to get all 108lbs of the EZ-Brailler onto my desk (thanks for your help, Justin and Andrea!)|
|Ready to produce books!|
While waiting for the different machines to arrive, I started work on creating the patterns and prototypes for the plush versions of the five main stars from The Little Star That Could.
|Big Daddy, Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star, Little Star/Sol, Pearl, Mr. Angry Blue-White Star|
Some will have some changes made in the future (i.e. the first couple made will look better). My sewing skills have definitely improved since I started (at least I think they have).
|Little Star Version 1 (hand sewn, was with me all the way through being awarded the grant), Version 2 (first attempt at pattern making), and Version 3 (kid tested and approved)|
Anyway, without further ado, let me introduce you to the Little Star character prototypes...
|Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star|
|Mr. Angry Blue-White Star|
|Little Star/Sol (version 2)|
Blog Author with the Little Star Family (that is a poster for the show from its second run in 1990 behind me and the Little Star here is version 3)
It was a lot to come up with the patterns since I haven't really sewn for close to 10 years, but it was also a lot of fun. It was great to work out the patterns, see the characters come to life and figure out what needed to be tweaked here and there. I can't wait to make the final versions in more durable upholstery fabric!
Next I had to start making the molds for the tactile books. Each page will be made has to be made from a mold. The process was probably the most involved and difficult from what I’m doing myself for the project!
|Clay or Puff Paint Molds Drying (the clay had to be pierced with pins to allow air to pass through)||Clay and Puff Paint definitely did not work :(|
|Our wonderful volunteer Deb has Brailled all of the text for the book||The first page hot off the EZ-Brailler! Little Star is Born in a Cloud of Gas and Dust (mold made from stacking illustration board and puff paint)|
|Many pages of molds drying|
The Model Begins
Finally, at the beginning of the new year, work began on the cut-away tactile model of the Planetarium's StarBay and Zeiss Universarium IX Projector!
We've done some work to figure out the layout on the casework, and while I knew it was going to be 24" in diameter, it was completely different experiencing how big that is, for lack of a better phrase, "in real life." Below are some pictures of the process of mocking it up to get an idea.
|Figuring out the base and dome size||Cutting the shape of the dome with the bandsaw|
|Giving an idea of the size of the model||Zeiss model starts to appear as a postivie in foam! Side view of the Zeiss model's base adn plant projectors|
|It is going to be amazing when it is done (and special thanks again to Ian in our Exhibition Production Department for all your hard work)!|
I finished all the molds for the pages of the show at the end of January, and I've now printed a page from every mold! Phew, did it get hot in my cubical, but it was great to see how every page came out in the Braillon. I know I need to tweak some things, but I also need to have them vetted by their audience. Hopefully soon I will have some pre-K through 2nd graders giving me feedback and testing them (and the plush characters)! I thought it would be fun to post a video of how I make each page as well so you can see how the EZ-Brailler works:
I hope you enjoy it! I also have a picture of some of the pages as well:
|Several pages of the book|
What started as a simple idea, turned into a labor of love and finally ended up becoming a reality. We're hopefully going to open up a whole new world for our audience in April!
If you would like to read the original posts, you can find them by clicking here.
Written by Anna, James S. McDonnell Planetarium