Wednesday, January 20, 2010

dinner, a movie and the universe

There are few things more romantic than stargazing and going to science museums, so when I heard about Dinner, a Movie, the Universe at Chabot Space and Science Center, making a reservation was a no-brainer.

My Dinner-Movie-Universe date took place last Friday. I’d never been to Chabot, so imagine what a great introduction I got, driving up into the Oakland Hills at night, glimpsing breathtaking views of the city from Skyline Boulevard.


We started our evening with dinner in the Celestial Café. First came bruschetta, then a fresh salad, followed by our choice of entrée. I’d opted for the risotto, it being the vegetarian option, and it was the only real disappointment of the evening. I’m usually a very good eater and I couldn’t finish mine despite my healthy appetite. Thankfully the apple crisp I had for dessert was tasty and filling. Our shows didn’t start until later, so we had a little time to explore the exhibit Beyond Blastoff, which I’ll write about next week.

A Movie

From a choice of four presentations, my date and I decided on two planetarium shows to see: Immersive Space and Tales of the Maya Skies. Immersive Space was a guided tour of the universe, focusing on several audience-requested destinations. Our tour guide of the cosmos was accommodating and easy to understand without talking down to us. As a former museum tour guide I know what a hard line it is to toe- I admire folks who do it well. I also appreciated how he acknowledged light pollution as a problem for stargazers, but focused on what one can see from the Oakland Hills and how easy it is to travel to see darker skies. We began with a view from Chabot, as if the dome of the planetarium had been lifted and we were looking up at the night sky. We then explored the Milky Way, Neptune’s moons, and the Orion Nebula. The images were created using a combination of photographs and CGI for a rich, visually dazzling display.

Our next show was very different. I had wanted to see Tales of the Maya Skies because of how fascinated I am by the ancient Mayan civilization. The film detailed the advanced astronomical discoveries of the Maya and the importance of the movement of celestial bodies in Mayan culture. With sweeping views of theatrically lit 3D models of colorful temples and artistic visualizations of Mayan mythology, the show was visually captivating. Yet I left the screening unable to put my finger on exactly what had turned me off about it.

While enthusiasm is important in engaging an audience, I often find that over-enthusiasm can spoil a moment for me. As narrator Lila Downs spoke dramatically about her ancestors, I had trouble sharing her delight. The tone of her voice communicated so strongly a sense of reverence for the Mayan culture, it felt a little propaganda-like and I couldn’t help but be skeptical. If the Maya are so cool, I thought, Why all the hype? The stories she was telling were so fascinating and the visuals so engaging, I didn’t need the extra excitement- I didn’t need convincing.

A few days later I found this video on and gained a deeper appreciation for this film and the technology used to create it. I’m especially intrigued by Chabot's collaboration with CyArk, a nonprofit using laser-scanning technology to create visual records of cultural heritage sites.

The Universe

The only thing we missed out on was the Universe portion of our evening. The overcast skies didn’t bode well for a look through the telescopes of the observatory. More incentive for a return visit!

* * *

Nighttime events are exciting, unique opportunities for visitors and are effective ways for museums to extend their hours and audience. Dinner, a Movie and the Universe seems to me a very successful take on this concept and since the dinner selections, films, and night sky are in constant rotation, it seems a sustainable one too.