LARGE CROWDS CLAMOURING TO SEE paraphernalia used in the making of The Two Towers, an exhibit now on at the former McLaughlin Planetarium, have prompted distributor Alliance Atlantis to extend the display a week to Dec. 8.

Since the exhibit opened on Oct. 31, 42,000 visitors have filed by to see the collection of hobbit swords and elven cloaks. But its unexpected success also has planetarium proponents renewing their calls for putting the structure to better use.

“I like the planetarium because it makes people smarter,” says Nick Van Der Graaf, the founder of the Planetarium Renaissance Group (PRG). “I’d like to see something in that building that makes people smarter, and no matter what a tribute to artistry [the Lord of the Rings exhibit] is, I don’t think it’s accomplishing that.”

Reacting to severe budget cuts ordered by the Ontario government, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) closed the planetarium in 1995. A Zeiss projector that was centrepiece of the Star Theatre for the planetarium’s 27-year lifespan was purchased by York University, which currently has it disassembled in storage. In 1998 the ROM opened the Children’s Own Museum on the second floor, and other parts of the planetarium building have been used for storage and special exhibits such as the current Lord of the Rings display.

Van Der Graaf says his group, which is dedicated to “seeing through whatever means possible the reopening of the McLaughlin Planetarium,” formed because they feel the planetarium played an important function in a city where the night sky is a hazy blur of gray.

“I think an important part of what planetariums do is give us an answer to the age-old question ‘Who am I?'” he says. “The night sky gives us a sense of our place in the universe, a sense of scale.”

Though the museum is in the midst of a massive “Renaissance ROM” redevelopment project, whose focus will be the arresting “crystal-veil” facade designed by Daniel Liebeskind, it has announced no plans to reopen the planetarium.

According to PRG, when museum CEO William Thorsell was asked if a vague reference in materials about Renaissance ROM to “redevelopment of the former planetarium site” was a euphemism for tearing the McLaughlin building down, he nodded in apparent assent.

Van Der Graaf emphasizes that his group is most interested in seeing a more open process for deciding what’s done with the site. “It’s outrageous that the fate of a great public institution like the planetarium should be decided by a few people around a boardroom table with so little public consultation,” he says.

Calls made to the ROM’s press office were not returned. “I’m not necessarily in favour of having the museum run the planetarium,” says Van Der Graaf, noting that because of the millions of dollars involved in reopening and operating the planetarium, he’s looking for either a large corporate “sugar daddy” or for one level of government to take the project on. “We’re open to any solution, public, private, whatever.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on November 28, 2002.