Director holds planetarium together

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Jack Dunn, director of the Nebraska State Museum’s Mueller Planetarium, previews one of his shows on the full dome screen.

Story, video and graphic by Jenna Gibson, NewsNetNebraska

He’s the glue that keeps the Mueller Planetarium together.

As the planetarium’s only full-time employee, Director Jack Dunn has to take care of nearly everything – running multiple shows a day, producing new projects and staying in the loop with new technology.

And he’s been doing it for nearly 40 years.

“The thing I like the most about the planetarium is the variety,” Dunn said. “I would probably go nuts if I were doing the same thing every day.”
Growing up, Dunn wasn’t hooked on space. But when he went to Midland College in Fremont, an astronomy professor inspired him to get into planetariums.

While he loves learning about space, Dunn didn’t want to be an astronomer. Rather than doing research and making new discoveries, he prefers translating complex science into something the average person can understand – a perfect fit for his job at Mueller.

“I wouldn’t want to be a person who just pushes the button. I like working with people,” he said. “If you get kids to ask questions and they’re good questions, when they relate that they’ve learned something or they were excited about something, that’s important.”

Once he knew he wanted to work in a planetarium, Dunn set out to learn everything he could about the trade – and he hasn’t stopped learning since.

“An awful lot of this is, unfortunately, self-taught because there are no courses out there,” he said. “I think the most important thing is to stay connected to people.”

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As the only full-time person working at Mueller, Dunn has to split his time between running shows for the public, producing new programs and keeping in touch with colleagues across the nation and around the world.

And besides limits on his time, Dunn also has to work around a limited budget when bringing new shows to Lincoln. Mueller is supported only by ticket sales and some support from the Nebraska State Museum, so Dunn has to make do without a lot of money.

Programs with full graphics and special effects, for example, can run upwards of $500,000 – a bit above Dunn’s price range. So he works to negotiate prices down or to buy raw footage and make shows himself.

And when the planetarium wanted to switch to a digital projection system three years ago, Dunn studied up, bought the parts and assembled the projector himself for a tenth of the price of a new system.

But Dunn doesn’t complain about having to do a lot with few resources – he just makes things work.

“It’s frustrating only in the sense that you have to be realistic,” he said. “If you’re willing to do some work, you can accomplish a lot. If you just sit there and say, ‘woe is me,’ that’s not very productive.”

Dunn’s even demeanor doesn’t immediately betray his passion for what he does – but get him talking about his job and he could go for hours.

“When you talk to Jack, you know that he’s doing what he’s meant to do in life,” said colleague Zach Thompson. “And when you’re with someone like that you start to feel the same way.”

Thompson, who works part-time at Mueller, said Dunn’s dedication has inspired him to run a planetarium one day.

“He is a guy who knows exactly what he’s talking about,” he said. “If you ask me, he was just born with it.”

Mark Harris, the Nebraska State Museum’s associate director and Dunn’s supervisor, agreed.

“He is fully immersed in all things astronomy,” Harris said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without Jack.”

Dunn’s dedication and his broad range of knowledge are a perfect fit for Mueller, Harris said.

“He’s kind of become iconic for the planetarium,” Harris said. “Nobody could completely fill the role that Jack has right now … Today if Jack were hit by a truck, we’d be in big trouble. I don’t know what we’d do.”

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