Theatre of the Cosmos: Performance, Space and Science at Armagh Planetarium, 1968–2016

   School of Natural and Built Environment

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  Dr O Dunnett  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The project aims to investigate scientific performance and public understandings of space science at Armagh Planetarium, the longest-running planetarium in the British Isles. Its presence as part of the iconic skyline of the City of Armagh, alongside its role as a public space of science during ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, makes it a unique focus for research across cultural geography, performance studies and the sociology of science. The student, working between Armagh Planetarium and QUB Geography, will use archival and ethnographic research methods to explore the performative spectacle of space science and its reception in society at Armagh Planetarium.

Aim of the Project

As the longest-running planetarium in the British Isles, Armagh Planetarium has been a site where the theatre of the cosmos has come to life for over fifty years, yet it has remained almost entirely unstudied in arts and humanities research. Working in parallel to its partner project on Armagh Observatory, this project aims to investigate the ways in which scientific performance and public understandings of space science were engendered at Armagh Planetarium, at a timely juncture in which the Planetarium is re-appraising its cultural and scientific legacy. 

Institutional Context

Armagh Planetarium was established in 1968, and instantly became a beacon of the Space Age, a public space of science where the nature of the planets, stars and Universe come to life. Its twelve-metre-diameter dome established its presence as part of the iconic skyline of the City of Armagh, home to two cathedrals and the historic Armagh Observatory, while its establishment in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’ was an attempt to forge a place for all in fractured times. As a theatre of the cosmos, the Planetarium transports its audience throughout the Universe in a modern iteration of the age-old narrative of cosmic ascent, and it continues to captivate over fifty thousand audience members each year as a special place of scientific performance and understanding. In 2016 Armagh Observatory and Planetarium merged to become one institution (AOP), and this project will inform plans to secure the heritage and ongoing educational benefits of both places. Furthermore, the project coincides with the centenary of the first modern planetarium in 2023, which will be marked by the International Planetarium Society with a programme of academic and cultural events, as well as Armagh's shortlisting for the 2025 UK City of Culture. 

Research Context and Objectives

There have been no substantial scholarly accounts of Armagh Planetarium. Research on planetaria has largely overlooked their role as special places in which cosmological knowledge is co-produced in the space between scientific performance and audience reception. As such, the project will contribute to a new synthesis of research across cultural geography, performance studies and the sociology of science, that recognises science as a situated performance as much as a search for universal truths (Finnegan 2017, Ogborn 2019, Latour 2013). The project will also inform research on the spatiality of scientific knowledge (Naylor 2005, Livingstone 2003), including the science of outer space in the post-war era (Agar 1998, MacDonald 2019), while engaging with research on past and present connections between geography and cosmology (Cosgrove 2001, Dunnett 2020). Research questions include: 

• What role did scientific performance play in generating new popular understandings of outer space at Armagh Planetarium?

• In what ways did audiences at the Planetarium receive and understand knowledge about the Universe? 

• How did the design of the Planetarium, from its architecture to its technologies of image projection, affect the production and reception of space science?

• How did workers at the Planetarium, from past Directors to technicians and guides, interact with wider networks of astronomical science, including Armagh Observatory? 

• What has been the social, cultural, and political significance of the Planetarium in Armagh and Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’, and how has this context informed narratives of space science? 

Research Methods and Sources

A combination of archival and ethnographic research methods will be used to investigate scientific performance and public understandings of space science at Armagh Planetarium. AOP owns document collections dating back to the 1940s concerning the design, establishment and management of the Planetarium, which will be a primary focus across all research questions. AOP's ongoing Oral History Project will be a key resource in understanding scientific performance and the role of workers at the Planetarium, and transcripts will be available from figures including the Planetarium's long-standing technician and guide Patrick Corvan, and its former Director (1971-1989) Dr. Terence Murtagh. In order to investigate the practicalities of past scientific performances, material including projection media, scripts and technical equipment from the AOP archives will be analysed and interpreted. Audience responses to past Planetarium performances will be researched through documentation on school visits and first-hand accounts from early shows at the Planetarium, accessed on-site at AOP, while further accounts will be gathered through local and national newspaper articles, accessed via the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (Belfast). Such sources, as well as additional interviews with people associated with the Planetarium, for example the astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, will be used to gain an understanding of the Planetarium's broader social significance.

Expressions of interest should be emailed by 5 January 2022 to Oliver Dunnett [Email Address Removed] 

The closing date for submission of your application is 12 January 2022.

Application Guidance

  • Submit using the Queen's University Application Portal:
  • Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 'Geography' at the School of Natural and Built Environment (SNBE) commencing 1 October 2022.
  • State name of lead supervisor (Dr O Dunnett).
  • Include the intended source of funding (AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award).

Anthropology (2) Creative Arts & Design (9) Geography (17) History & Archaeology (19) Physics (29)

Funding Notes

This 3.5 year PhD Studentship will be funded by Northern Bridge Consortium (NBC) through their Staff-led Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDA) route. Full details, including the personal specification, may be found at:
The Value of the Award
Tuition fees paid at a rate equivalent to the Home UK fee.
• A minimum stipend per year for living costs, which is paid in regular instalments.
Awards increase every year, typically with inflation. As an indicator, the level for 2021/2022 was £15,609.