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Showcases for science. Museums - and museumgoers - on the rise

SOME 450,000 people traipsed through the Edmonton Space Sciences Center last year - a small portion of the vast numbers getting easy doses of science in the Western world these days. According to an estimate of the National Science Foundation, some 150 million people attend science museums and centers of all types each year in the United States alone. That's more than attend all other kinds of museums (art, history, etc.) and more than go to baseball, basketball, and football games combined.

Moreover, attendance has been growing rapidly as these science centers multiply around the world.

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Why this interest?

Parents want their children to become interested in science and technology because they think it is important to their future. Adults aim to brush up on physics, space, astronomy, and so on. Governments hope to promote the sciences to stimulate their economies.

Besides, notes Bonnie Van Dorn, executive director of the Association of Science-Technology Centers in Washington, going through a science center can be fun.

Certainly one goal of John Hault, executive director of this 30-month-old Edmonton center, was to give education a show-biz appeal. Many science-technology-space centers - including this one - rely on paid admissions to meet most of their expenses, much more than natural history or fine arts museums. So they have to be popular as well as scientific.

``Science centers are much more entrepreneurial,'' says Mrs. Van Dorn. ``People must be willing to pay for the product.''

The Edmonton center, for example, includes such attention grabbers as an IMAX theater with its massive screen, nearly 40 by 60 feet in size. Currently showing is a spectacular film on Australia's Great Barrier Reef that is selling out all 220 seats in the theater most evenings and weekends.

There's also a planetarium with a star projector, supplied by Zeiss Jena of East Germany. ``Largest of its kind in the western world,'' boasts the center.

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The projected stars and planets are sometimes supplemented by laser light shows accompanied by rock music - another tool used to draw a paying audience.

In addition, there are push-the-button, pull-the-lever types of exhibits and games to teach physics and astronomy. There's a full-scale model of the Canada Space Arm used by the US space shuttle, a moon rock, and antique telescopes. Special exhibits, including some traveling ones, encourage repeat visits.

The museum building itself, designed by architect Douglas Cardinal, attracts attention with its modernistic angles and curves.

One measure of the popularity of science-technology centers is their proliferation. The Association of Science-Technology Centers had 158 members in 1982, 12 of them in the process of developing a center. Today it has 225 members with 19 members working on establishing new centers. Seven science center projects of various sorts are under way in Canada. Association members represent 21 countries, but are mostly from the US and Canada. Many overseas centers have not joined this trade association.

IMAX Systems Corporation in Toronto, maker of the IMAX and OMNIMAX wide-screen movie systems, has capitalized on the science center boom. It now has 43 such systems around the world, about half of them in planetariums or science-technology centers. It expects to install another 12 systems this year and to double the number of IMAX or OMNIMAX theaters in five years, according to a spokesman in Toronto. The Museum of Science in Boston, for example, will open an IMAX theater in March.

Edmonton's center was funded when the province was rolling in oil wealth. It got about $5 million from the Alberta government, another $5 million from the city, and about $6 million from corporations or foundations, nearly covering the total cost of $19.5 million (US $14.3 million). The Edmonton Space Sciences Foundation, the nongovernmental organization running the center, plans a fund-raising campaign in a few weeks to pay off the last $1 million in debt, says chairman Alexander Budge, a retired Exxon executive.

Today the provincial economy and many of its citizens are suffering from the decline in energy prices. Nonetheless, receipts from admissions covered nearly 85 percent of the $2.5 million in operating costs last year. Income from a gift shop and bookstore selling science items, a small city grant, science camps in the summer and science courses in the evening, memberships, and other activities covered the remainder.

This year Mr. Budge hopes the museum will make a small profit of $100,000.

The foundation has a planning committee looking at the feasibility of an addition to the building for a children's science center and exhibits on the health sciences and high technology.

``That's down the road a little way,'' says Budge. He wants to clear up old debts first.

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