museums&MORE Winter 2019
Peer Perspective: Kathleen Harrison, Downing Planetarium

Not every university has an on-campus planetarium, but California State University, Fresno — more commonly known at Fresno State — is one that does.

Downing Planetarium, located at the center of campus, is not only a great resource for Fresno State’s 24,000-plus enrollees, it’s perhaps an even better resource for students who won’t be old enough to attend college for quite some time.

The planetarium is a go-to spot for Fresno-area schoolteachers who are eager to get their younglings out and about to explore science beyond school walls. Those children, excited to take a memento home from their day out, usually find their way into the 450-square-foot Little Dipper Gift Shop.

Opening in 2000, Downing Planetarium has known only one leader: Operations manager Kathleen Harrison, who formerly taught physics at the university. Harris leads a small staff, which includes Fresno State students. She wears many hats for the planetarium, including overseeing and buying for the Little Dipper Gift Shop.

MM: How long have you been with the planetarium? Have you always held your current role?

KH: I have been with the planetarium since we opened in 2000, which makes almost 19 years now. Kids that came here on field trips in elementary school are grown up now with kids of there own. Before the planetarium opened, I was teaching physics at Fresno State. Once we opened, we had so much business that I went full-time at the planetarium. I do miss teaching though and may offer to teach a physics class next semester.


MM: As the planetarium’s operations manager, what all does your job entail? How does the gift shop figure into your duties? 

KH: I am in charge of the day-to-day operations at the planetarium. I communicate with the teachers trying to arrange a spot in our calendar, handle the weekday field trips and public programs on the weekends. I am in charge of ordering, stocking and helping customers in the gift shop. We always check with the teachers to see if they would like to have the gift shop open or closed on the day of their visit. Our busiest time is during the spring when everyone is trying to fit in their field trips before the end of the (school) year. By this time, the children have completed their state testing and the teachers are more likely to ask for the gift shop to be opened.

MM: How large is the staff?

KH: We have two full-time staffers, a director and a technician, and four part-time student assistants. Since we have such a small staff, everyone helps out in the gift shop as needed.


MM: How large is the store in terms of square feet?

KH: The LittleDipper lives up to its name. It is about 450 square feet. … We carry about 250 different products at any one time.


MM: What are your top-selling categories? 

KH: Our best customers are the third-graders on field trips to the planetarium. They come with money and are anxious to spend it! We sell a lot of alien slime, rocks, meteorites, glow in the dark stars and flying toys.


MM: Where do you look for new products?

KH: We find new products in the Museums & More magazine. Also, when we visit other planetariums and museums, we always visit their gift shops to see what’s out there. We have some regular vendors as well. Catalogs are always a good source, too.


MM: How are proceeds from the Little Dipper Gift Shop utilized by the Downing Planetarium?

KH: The retail proceeds go to fund the planetarium operations. The gift shop helps to pay our staff and purchase new planetarium programs.

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