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Editorial: Planetary nostalgia / It shouldn't block the Children's Museum expansion

Sunday, September 16, 2001

The old Buhl Planetarium building on the North Side holds fond memories for Pittsburghers, who as children were enthralled by celestial shows there. But nostalgia is a poor prescription for the future, something those who want to restore some old Buhl equipment need to understand.

In late 1991, the Buhl building was vacated, just shortly before the new Carnegie Science Center opened a short distance away.

The old planetarium's Zeiss II projector, reportedly one of the oldest operable planetarium projectors in the world, and a 10-inch refractor telescope once used to study the sun were then stored in the vacant building and haven't been used since.

Carnegie Science Center officials say that the two pieces of equipment are obsolete and wouldn't be worth putting back into active use.

The Pittsburgh Children's Museum wants to expand into the vacant planetarium building, using the space for classrooms and exhibits. They want to open by spring 2003.

But a group of former planetarium employees is fighting the museum's request for $4 million in Allegheny Regional Asset District funds unless the museum agrees to restore and use the old stored equipment.

Desirable as it may be to preserve two old pieces of Pittsburgh history, it is difficult to see how either piece of equipment could fit into the Children's Museum plan without considerable additional expenditures not contemplated in the $10 million to $12 million expansion proposal.

It is also likely that in order to re-use the equipment, the Children's Museum would have to completely revise its current expansion plan to make room for the projector and telescope, or else install the equipment elsewhere. That is a wasteful prospect.

Anyone who has experienced the tight quarters, cramped exhibit space and heavy weekend crowds at the Children's Museum can attest to the need for the planned expansion.

The former planetarium employees' idea also raises the question of why families would be interested in having their children experience old, outdated equipment for planetarium shows when they can experience far more up-to-date shows at the nearby Carnegie Science Center.

The science center wants to make sure the old equipment is well taken care of and it wants to exhibit both pieces in a display at the center. Both would be inactive.

That seems to be the most realistic solution on the table right now -- one that honors the past while making provision for the future of an important educational attraction.

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