Blog: A history of Canada’s planetariums by Space Place Canada

Ian McLennan narrates his decades-long experience with planetarium development across the country

By Adam A. Lam, Astronomy and Space Exploration Society
McLaughlin Planetarium in 2013. Photo: Brucewaters, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

TORONTO, Ontario — Toronto shuttered its last major planetarium in 1995. From the view of Ian McLennan, a consultant who has seen the rise of planetarium construction across Canada since the 1960s, there is a strong historical basis for the city to build a new one.

“Toronto is a major city in the world, as well as in Canada, and it deserves to have its own major planetarium,” said McLennan at “Northern Lights: When the Planetariums Came to Canada,” a Space Place Canada online event on March 11, 2021.

McLennan’s views are informed by his experience as the first Director of the Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium in Edmonton, the first planetarium built in the country, and as a consultant for almost 100 public initiatives spanning six continents.

The planetarium ran from 1960 to 1983, and has been designated as a historical landmark by the City of Edmonton, with its doors opening to the public once more after a full restoration in 2021. McLennan recalled his experiences planning the construction of the planetarium — including shipping in a projector from Delaware, producing special effects, and working with a composer to create original music for its events.

McLennan recalls the planetarium’s opening becoming a major success for the city. At its peak in 1967, according to CBC News, the institution “welcomed 33,500 visitors a year.” The planetarium’s popularity, as McLennan noted, directly led to the construction of a new larger facility as a replacement in 1984, now known as the Telus World of Science.

The Telus World of Science has continued to positively impact Edmonton, McLennan noted. McLennan highlighted the planetarium’s programming that references Indigenous astronomy “and many other stories that typically are forgotten in planetariums,” which focus on the traditional education of Greek constellations.

Following the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II planetarium, McLennan narrated the construction of other planetariums across Canada in Calgary, Montreal, and Halifax. Away from Canada, he recalled the emergence of planetariums in major city centres in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Tokyo. “It’s a big planetarium world out there,” he said, with significant interest in public astronomy education at these institutions across the world.

But Toronto, McLennan explained, no longer has a major planetarium in the city. McLaughlin Planetarium, a familiar sight to Torontonians south of the Royal Ontario Museum since 1968, shuttered in 1995. “It was donated to initially to the University of Toronto and then to the Royal Ontario Museum,” he explained, and “featured a very large 23-metre dome and a Zeiss Jena projector” with a space theatre of 340 seats. As the Toronto Star reported, the planetarium welcomed more than six million visitors over its 27-year history.

“But in the end, the planetarium didn’t have as much of a political backing as it might have had,” McLennan said. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) shut down the museum in 1995 in direct response to a cutback of $626,000 cutback imposed by the provincial government at the time, according to the Toronto Star. The ROM later sold the building to the University of Toronto, but it no longer functions as a building to support public outreach in astronomy.

To McLennan, who has seen decades of planetariums construction across the world, the construction of a new planetarium in Canada could be pivotal to communicating the key role of Canada’s astronomers to the public.

“We think that there’s a wonderful story about Canada in astronomy and space,” said McLennan, with a rich history in astronomy research and engineering for space exploration. “A national planetarium that told that story — not in a nationalistic or jingoistic way, but just in a matter of fact way — [could place these contributions] into the larger story of the universe,” he continued.

Toronto is a prime candidate for the location of this planetarium, said McLennan. As the largest city in Canada that attracts visitors from across the world, “it deserves a planetarium that tells part of the national story as well.”

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About Space Place Canada: We are a non-profit, multi-disciplinary group of professionals determined to bring a public planetarium back to Toronto. Toronto is only one of two cities in the world of its size without a major planetarium. This is a critical missing piece of Toronto’s tourism and educational infrastructure. Our key advisors come from across North America and include experts in the design, planning and operating of science centres and planetariums.

About the ASX Society: The Astronomy and Space Exploration Society (ASX) is an undergraduate-run not-for-profit that has organized public education events with astronomers since 2003. Their next event is named “Archaeoastronomy: The Astronomy of Civilizations Past,” which explores the astronomy of ancient civilizations. Catch the free event on March 24 at 6 pm with details on their Facebook event page.

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