Is the Exploratorium Flunking Itself?

(Leaping Robot note: When I was in Manchester for the ICHSTM conference, one of the best sessions I attended addressed “science and public culture.” All of the talks were great but one that really resonated with me was by Karen Rader, a colleague of mine at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Exploratorium’s history is related to a new project I’m starting, so I invited her to write a guest post about some recent news concerning the institution. Here it is…)

When the Exploratorium burst onto the museum scene in 1969, it heralded the arrival of a new era of interactive display that was at once modest and remarkable, conservative and path-breaking.  Modesty shone thru in its creative method, which was scrappy, open-ended, and experimental, even while its institutional vision of redefining the museum experience was expansive and its faith in the scientific method bordered on naïve.

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The Exploratorium’s museum floor, in its original Palace of Fine Arts location.

Short on money, materials, and time, founder Frank Oppenheimer, a physicist and the brother of the Manhattan Project’s scientific director (and brother to J. Robert Oppenheimer), scrounged old lab equipment from Stanford to build bare-bones interactive exhibits that he hoped would make visitors question their basic assumptions about the physics and biology of perception.

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Frank Oppenheimer at home in his Exploratorium

Oppenheimer relied on family to help him install new wiring and sweep the floors of the floors of the city’s old Palace of Fine Arts, a cavernous rebuilt remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition that he convinced the city of San Francisco to rent to him for a dollar a year.  At the same time, he told the local press that, unlike rigid school curricula, his museum would have no predefined learning outcomes: “No one ever flunked a museum” became the Exploratorium’s rallying cry.1 In the planning stages local neighbors objected to the museum’s presence, fearing that its anti-establishment values would attract San Francisco’s youth counterculture to the otherwise quiet Marina district.

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The cavernous space at the Palace of Fine Arts, 1968, that became the Exploratorium

They needn’t have worried: the day the museum opened, it barely registered with the public. No renowned scientists spoke, no ribbons were cut, no press releases were sent. That morning, Oppenheimer and the few members of the staff just opened the doors, and kept them open.  Two runners jogged in and “never slowed up,” Oppenheimer recalled. “They just went back and forth, and finally went through the curling path and out the door again.”2  The then-young National Science Foundation nevertheless took notice: the Exploratorium became one of the U.S. government’s first and longest post-Sputnik investments in a new program that would come to be called ‘informal science education.

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Exploratorium exhibits and visitors, 1975.

But on all this historic innovation and investment, the economics of running an interactive bricks-and-mortar museum in the age of Web 2.0 and vanishing federal support has recently taken a heavy toll. On August 26, the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang posted a story titled “Exploratorium Forced to Cut Back”, detailing the institution’s decision to pare down its staff of 435 by nearly a fifth in order to (in Chang’s description) “preserve the core of the institution while putting it back on an even financial keel.”  What caused the reported “budget hole” of around $11 million?  Current executive director Dennis Bartels chalks it up to a combination of bad timing and bad planning.  The museum recently underwent relocation – to Piers 15 and 17, between the tourist meccas of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building – and a $220 million renovation on its new site that, in theory, could encompass double the visitors in nearly three football fields worth of displays, demonstration arenas, and teacher training spaces.  But just as when the original Exploratorium opened, the museum’s leaders “did not make a big publicity push” after the move, because apparently they “worried that the new location would be overwhelmed” in the same way that the California Academy of Sciences was after its 2008 renovation and reopening. Historically, museum directors rarely try to suppress attendance, but this unusual strategy combined with a more typical plan to promote what Oppenheimer would have called museum “addicts”: greatly reduced-price tickets for local visitors and children.

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Artist’s rendering of the Exploratorium in its new location on Pier 15.

Insiders publicly bear little ill-will towards the Exploratorium leadership, even while they recognize the momentousness of the shift that their miscalculations have wrought.   The institution has employed many staffers for the longue durée, some since the time when Oppenheimer was director and several of whom who (like biologist Karen Kalumuck) openly “love the place and the people” despite being let go.  Many of those leaving, however, are those who worked in the original experimental mode of exhibit building: develop an idea, prototype it, put it on the floor, and see what happens, then adjust and remount the display according to the visitor experience.  That model of interactive exhibit building values the same knowledge-making processes as organized science itself — trial-and-error, rigorous internal review, and relentless technological refinement and innovation – and it insists on achieving relevance to the visitor.  Even while Oppenheimer, himself a target of Cold War-era persecution for his communist beliefs, thought little of exhibits that simplistically pandered to audiences by incorporating contemporary ideological currents, he never lost sight of the need to move ‘hands-on’ displays beyond just pushing buttons and flipping switches to engage visitors in genuine explorations of the questions that meant the most to them.  Now, instead of such engaging in more such explorations, the foundation of the Exploratorium will be (in the words of exhibit designer Earl Rankin Stirling) “work-for-hire for other museums around the world.”   The Exploratorium will remain an exhibit shop, but one that is scaled up and focused primarily on the mass-production and sale of finished displayable products rather than the creation of messy, ‘ceiling wax and string’ works-in-progress.

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 2.07.49 PMOne can neither blame the museum for taking this direction, nor the staff for acquiescing.  Pragmatically, in an era when STEM education is supposed to be a high priority for states and countries around the world even though innovative ideas in this area have not always increased accordingly, distributing more high-quality, well-tested interactive exhibits as a means of increasing access to informal STEM learning will make a difference.  On a larger scale, it is also what will bring the museum back from the brink of financial collapse.  But it’s equally true that (again, quoting the assessment of the Exploratorium’s Mr. Stirling) “it’s a core difference” that “basically rips at the heart of who we are here.”  Without new display experiments of the kind the Exploratorium pioneered, what will tomorrow’s exhibits look like? How will visitors connect with them?  What will interactivity in the design of museum displays come to look like? One can only hope this development will not encourage the same kind of relentless standardization of science exhibit making that the “No Child Left Behind” Act ushered in for school testing.  If that happens, it would be an irony that Oppenheimer could have appreciated: no one ever flunked museums… except for museums themselves.

  1. For more on the history of the Exploratorium, see chapter 6 of Karen A. Rader and Victoria E.M. Cain, Life on Display: Revolutionizing Museums of Science and Natural History, 1900-1990 (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming (Fall 2014 []
  2. As cited in K.C. Cole, Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens, p. 152. []