Planetarium show is eclipsed by star culture

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The Independent Online

Stargazing at the London Planetarium is about to undergo a profound transformation.

Madame Tussauds will stop showing the traditional exploration of the solar system at the distinctive green-domed building in Baker Street. Instead visitors will be invited to embark on a voyage "around the worlds of fame and celebrity" at the renamed Auditorium.

The announcement provoked outrage among Britain's astronomers and prompted concerns that generations of future scientists could be lost to the subject. Sir Patrick Moore, who has presented the BBC programme The Sky at Night since 1957, said: "It is the most extraordinary thing. I am completely appalled."

The Dubai-owned entertainment giant said it would make the change in the summer because of a dwindling interest in space and the rocketing interest in celebrity culture.

A spokeswoman for Tussauds, said that even though entry to the Planetarium was included "free" with the price of admission to the next-door waxworks museum, only 30 per cent of the two million visitors each year bothered to take advantage of it. She said: "We have done research to find out why people come to Madame Tussauds and the reason was to get up close and personal to famous people."

Auditorium visitors can expect to enjoy the kind of hands-on entertainment being pioneered across the way at Tussauds. Aardman Animations, maker of the award-winning Wallace and Gromit films, has been recruited to work on new projects.

Tussauds - which has museums in the United States, the Netherlands and Hong Kong with one planned for China - also owns Alton Towers and the London Eye. At Baker Street it is on a mission to get visitors to interact with the celebrity waxworks. The Tussauds' X-Factor attraction, in which people perform before animated models of the fearsome trio of judges Simon Cowell, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh has proved particularly popular, as has playing fantasy football with a mannequin of Jose Mourinho.

Sir Patrick dismissed claims that people had lost interest in the solar system and said well-run planetariums, such as his local one on the South Downs, continued to attract large audiences. He dismissed claims by Tussauds that stargazers would be catered for at the forthcoming 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetarium at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, due to open next year. "Madame Tussauds is right in the middle of London, it is very convenient," said Sir Patrick.

His concerns were echoed by Robin Scagell, vice-president of the UK's Society for Popular Astronomy. He said a trip to the London Planetarium had been an inspiration for generations of schoolchildren.

"Tussauds should stay in touch with the community rather than just concentrating on celebrities and footballers who will be forgotten in a year or two," he said. "I'm amazed that the management can't come up with exciting and interesting shows about the wonders of the universe that will attract audiences again. They have a valuable resource that they are squandering through a lack of imagination."

The London Planetarium stands on the site of a former cinema that was bombed during the Second World War. The current copper-roofed building was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1958, and except for a brief period during the 1970s when it substituted psychedelic laser shows, it has remained dedicated to the study of the universe.

However, the original 45-minute feature has dwindled to the present 15-minute presentation "Journey to Infinity". It was eventually coupled as an attraction with the waxworks four years ago, but the writing was on the wall when a live-action stage show called "Warriors" attracted an upsurge in visitors.

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