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Galileo brings star power to museum

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Exactly 400 years ago, Galileo Galilei first pointed a rudimentary telescope into space and started to unlock its mysteries.

In recognition of that milestone -- and of 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy -- the Manitoba Museum has partnered with planetariums in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal to create a multimedia show that celebrates the Italian astronomer and his discoveries.

Galileo Live! opens today at the Manitoba Museum's planetarium. It has two performances daily, at 1 and 3 p.m., until Sept. 7.

The 30-minute, all-ages show blends animation, video, 360-degree photography, recorded actors and a live performer to convey Galileo's passion for astronomy and quest for scientific truth.

The recorded "voice" of Galileo's daughter Virginia is woven throughout, recalling how, when she was a girl, she and her father observed the stars together.

The shared cost of Galileo Live! was about $225,000, says Scott Young, manager of science communications. That compares to about $6,000 for a standard planetarium show. Its development included sending a photographer to Italy to shoot important locations for Galileo's story in cities such as Venice, Pisa and Rome.

"Those places appear in our show, as if the audience is transported there," says Young, adding that planetariums are "reinventing themselves" to compete with other forms of entertainment.

This is only the second presentation at the planetarium to incorporate a live, scripted performer. Three local actors, Karl Thordarson, Tim Bandfield and Andrew Cecon, alternate as Galileo.

Thordarson, 32, has grown a beard for the assignment. He gets to wear a lavish 17th-century costume with a plumed hat. A small stage has been erected in the planetarium chamber, with a set that includes a desk where Galileo writes with a quill pen, and a replica wooden telescope modelled on his "optik tube" of 1609.

The show also makes use of Renaissance music. Galileo's father was a boundary-pushing lute player, composer and music theorist who angered the musical authorities of the time.

"Galileo's story is an amazing story of scientific discovery, but also of personal discovery," says Young. "He was the first person to see the craters on the moon and the moons of Jupiter....

"He was the one who figured out that the Milky Way was actually stars.... He was the first to see all the planets up to Saturn, used evidence to prove the Earth was round, and moved Earth from the centre of the universe to its rightful place as a planet."

Of course, his observations were considered outrageous and heretical in his time. The production shows how Galileo had to battle opposition from heckling fellow scientists and the Catholic church.

"Some (skeptics) chose not to look through his telescope, suggesting that it was some trick of magic," says Thordarson. "He was convinced that if others would simply look, they would understand the same thing he did."

Thordarson has been doing his own research into Galileo's life. He recommends the non-fiction book Galileo's Daughter, which draws on the correspondence between the scientist and Virginia.

He has to be prepared to mingle, in character, with audience members who will have the chance to peer through a replica telescope after the show.

"You have to carry the role in more improv fashion, out here on the floor," he says.

Admission to Galileo Live! is $6.50 for adults and $5 for youths, students and seniors.

Attendance up

The Manitoba Museum, which includes the Planetarium and Science Gallery, increased its attendance for the second straight year in 2008-09, the museum announced at its recent annual general meeting.

Dinosaur Dynasty, a touring show of dinosaur skeletons from China, drew more than 50,000 visitors between November and March, helping the Rupert Avenue institution to reach total attendance of more than 300,000 in the year ended March 31.

That was a 16 per cent increase over the previous year. School attendance was up as well, with more than 92,000 students attending education programs.

Recent improvements to the Science Gallery include two new, interactive space-lab exhibits, a microgravity trainer and a computer simulator that allows visitors to operate a robot arm.

The museum, which operated on a budget of just over $6 million, balanced its books for the 17th consecutive year.

Ken Ross will serve for a second year as chairman of the board of governors.

The Manitoba Museum is open on Canada Day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's offering free admission to children under 12 who wear red and white.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 27, 2009 c11

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