It’s a muggy June evening, and a small crowd of about thirty gathers outside the J. R. Hyde Science Building at the University of Memphis at Lambuth. The crowd represents all portraits of life in Jackson: families with multiple small children, retirees, and a small group of teens looking to break the monotony of their typical summer drudgery by doing something singularly unique.
To a passerby, the sight may be confounding as individuals check the time on their phones periodically as if awaiting some sort of grand opening on the nearly empty campus. But what hides behind the doors of the M.D. Anderson Planetarium is much grander than you might expect.
Not new to the Jackson community, this place has served literally thousands of space aficionados of all ages over the years of its operation. The M.D. Anderson Planetarium was originally built as part of the J.R. Hyde Science Building in 1967 and rededicated in 1973 through a generous grant by the M.D. Anderson Foundation in honor of Monroe Dunaway Anderson, who was a banker, cotton trader, and founding member of Anderson, Clayton, & Co. The rededication commemorated the hundredth celebration of M.D. Anderson’s birth in Jackson. Presently funded by the University of Memphis at Lambuth’s budget, the planetarium is also open to being a recipient of private gifts.
Currently, the planetarium gives weekly full-dome, pre-produced shows free of charge to a variety of community members. Public and private school children, along with homeschoolers, regularly visit for shows, as do community groups like the Boy and Girl Scouts and senior centers. Lasting for about thirty minutes, each pre-recorded show features information on a different space-related topic, such as astronauts, the Hubble Space Telescope, and galaxies. It exists to provide the sparking of curiosity, promote interest in space, and to inspire space enthusiasts to pursue further information about topics of interest to them.
I recently had the pleasure of attending my first show at the planetarium. Upon arriving, I was greeted by the current coordinator of the planetarium, Holley Wood. Wood, a member of the Vice Provost’s office, is in charge of running the pre-produced shows on the Digitalis digitarium equipment. She enthusiastically welcomed the crowd to the show: an exciting, scientific tale entitled, “Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity.” A primarily purple blacklight mural stretching about twelve feet long greets attendees on the wall below the domed screen. Drawn by one of the planetarium workers, it is clear that the planetarium volunteers take pride in their work of what NASA calls “informal education,” or that for scientific entertainment purposes.
As the lights dimmed, Liam Neeson’s soothing voice filled the room, bringing gravitas and brevity to this current scientific topic. Each seat in the planetarium reclines, giving the viewer a better view of the domed “night sky.” The littlest members of the audience respond enthusiastically by pointing out the visuals to their parents, while others smile silently in equal awe, the humbling planetarium uniting the young and old in wonder for the mysteries of our solar system.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the planetarium are its exceptional visuals. During the “Black Holes” show, a massive black hole was projected above the audience to emphasize its grandeur in the realm of space. This graphical opulence allows the viewer to faithfully feel enveloped by the experience of exploring space and its secrecies.
Ultimately, the M.D. Anderson Planetarium offers an experience with the wonders of our night sky in a sensorial and educational encounter. The unrestricted access to the phenomena of the solar system is a hidden gem in our community, and as Indian American astronaut Kalpana Chawla once said, “When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.”
The M.D. Anderson Planetarium is located in the J.R. Hyde Science Hall on the campus of the University of Memphis at Lambuth at 705 Lambuth Boulevard. Public shows are currently shown every Tuesday evening at 5:30 P.M. To learn more, call 731.425.7368 or visit their Facebook page.
Megan Shulman is a transplant to the Jackson area after living all over the country. She works as the Technical Services Librarian at the Mildred G. Fields Public Library in Milan and is currently writing a book on her experience with electroconvulsive therapy.
Originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, photographer Katie Howerton moved to Jackson in 2011 to study Graphic Design and Drawing at Union University. She discovered Our Jackson Home in January 2015 and used it as a guinea pig for her senior design project, creating the first issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine. After graduating she was given leadership over Our Jackson Home at theCO, where she now runs the blog, designs the magazine, and coordinates events. She and her husband Jordan live in Midtown and are active members of City Fellowship Baptist Church.