Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Putting the Active Back in Interactive: Why the Exploratorium Continues to Win at Everything

The shiny new home of the Exploratorium in 2013!
In my eyes, anyway. Some subjectivity may follow.

So, as some of you know, I have recently returned to the SF Bay Area after many years in Massachusetts. There were a number of reasons for my return, not the least of which was that I become vicious and cruel when the relative humidity hits 50% my awesomeness has a tendency to wilt in humid weather, and spending the summer in MA is kinda like trying to live normally while wrapped in hot wet blankets. (Yeah, yeah, I know, there are worse places, but I'M STILL ALLOWED TO COMPLAIN because, see, I moved away.) But I also came back to the Bay to, well, start work on the Museum. See, since I currently know approximately nothing whatsoever about the actualities of running a museum, I figured now would be a good time to learn. And one of the greatest museums in the world is right here in San Francisco. My dad worked there when he was 22. I've been going there since before my 2nd birthday. Man, the first nightmare I can ever remember having was set there. (That might not sound like praise, but it is -- it got WAY into my head, yo. I was all alone and it was dark and the exhibits were looking at me. This is no longer a scary thought.) Yes, I've talked about it before -- this is the Exploratorium, guys,


and maybe just the best museum, full stop.

So what did I do? I volunteered. Because I could go and get a graduate degree in museum studies, I guess, and put down 60K and still need a part-time job just to eat and pay the rent and no it is not likely that said job would relate even remotely to anything I care about, and then probably not have a job when I graduate and STILL not know anything about the actual hands-in-the-dirt work of running a museum, and it would be Full Of Suck. If I'm gonna need a part-time job just to eat and pay rent, you better believe I'm going to spend the rest of the time trying not to spend all my money. I'm starting to believe that higher education is totally broken (maybe only in the arts for now, but it's spreading -- just ask your friendly local law students at any nearby coffeeshop if you like seeing Very Sad Expressions) and anyway goddammit I just want to play with exhibits, already, so, well, what better thing to do with my time than go to


Here is me pretending to fly over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Just like a red-shouldered hawk. Only heavier. And unred.
I own the copyright to this picture! I read a scary blog post
about why even well-attributed images can be dangersauce
when blogging, so I'm now sufficiently freaked out about
getting sued to try and be better about using only images
I am fairly confident nobody will ding me for.
and, you know, learn stuff and be helpful and generally do my very best to make myself so utterly invaluable that they love me forever and want to teach me All The Things? Besides, it basically means that my non-working-for-real-money days are spent doing things like watching models of the Mars Rover get built and poking giant balloons and seeing red-shouldered hawks flying over the Golden Gate Bridge. I know if I was hip and cool like the rest of my generation I'd be taking lots of Instagram photos and drinking too much beer, but I will try and die without ever owning a smartphone (SHUTUP I DON'T WANT THE INTERNET IN MY POCKET IT WILL EAT ME ALIVE, I have poor impulse control and the only reason I haven't just gone ahead and donated my brain to cyberspace yet is that I have a REALLY HEAVY laptop that I only bring places when I really need it) and anyway by now it's probably retro-hip to hang out and do science. I AM TOTALLY DOING IT FIRST YOU GUYS. Look at me, I am so cool.

Kay, getting a little heavy on the capslock today. Uh oh. I'm excited. I'm excited because volunteering there is honestly so cool. There are people who still remember my dad (he was younger than me! he had a beard!) and don't find it the least little bit surprising that now I'm here, putting my stuff on the signs. (My dad wrote a bunch of the explanatory "What's Going On?" signage for the exhibits, some of which are still up. However, all the signs are getting redone for the move to Pier 15, and his will be gone - just in time for mine to appear. No we did not plan it that way. Anyway, as of right now I haven't written any signs, although I DID get to make a graphic that will be on one of the new signs! Meticulously hand-drawn orange chairs! In three sizes! I know, you're so excited right now.) The thing is, what's so amazing about the Exploratorium is the fact that every single exhibit DOES something. There's nothing in a glass case that you just look at. NOTHING. Every exhibit is interactive, truly interactive, not "Okay stand here and touch this computer screen" interactive but interactive in the sense of acting. with. (You know, like the word actually means something.) You jump, crank, clap, poke, shout, sing, decipher, modulate, charge, zap, play, build, spin, etc, etc. All those tiresome action verbs your insufferably boring English teacher tried to hammer through your skull? Right here. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. There isn't a passive verb in the place, except maybe "be amazed" (does that even count)?

And this is why I am working for


and not an art museum, or a gallery, or a theater, or anywhere else. Listen, the Museum of Joy is not a science museum. If you were wondering if you had maybe missed the memo, no, no, that's not the plan. (Though do I want exhibits involving the science of joy? Hell, yes.) But I am convinced that joy is not something that we find in passive tenses. It comes to us, I suspect, more often than it's summoned, but it comes in active moments: gardening, playing, eating, sharing, dancing, contemplating, making. I'm not entirely sure where I got this clear sense that joy happens especially when the body and the mind are engaged together in some simple act, whether it be meditation alone in a quiet room or an enormous wedding riotous with family and friends. Perhaps I believe that joy can't be wholly of the mind or wholly of the body, that it only really comes to us when we forget there's any such split at all. And that's why the Exploratorium's exhibits are so fantastic, why I have so much to learn from them: they harness together the faculties of the mind (curiosity, wonder, discovery, pattern-making, analysis, understanding) with those of the body (building, making, shaping, playing) so that our often-divided selves are in collaboration. There isn't a single exhibit you can't touch, that doesn't change in some active and tangible way when you put your hands on it. To me, this is extraordinary. It shifts the concept of "museum" from being a depository of artifacts to being a space of creation.

Step One...
Of course, there are many kinds of museum, and not all of them are depositories, and not all of them are boring. But you would have to work pretty hard to convince me that most museums aren't, at base, places where you wander around and look at stuff. Quick! Think of five museums you've visited in marginally recent memory. Okay, now tell me ten exhibits you remember that didn't rely primarily on your visual cortex. Was that hard? How about this: for each museum, tell me about an exhibit based primarily on engaging your sense of smell. Or touch. Or hearing beyond talking heads or a voiceover. I'll leave out taste, because that's hard to do in a hygienic way. (Can't have everybody licking the walls, even if it is San Francisco.) What about your kinesthetic senses - do you remember an exhibit that got your physical sense of balance or perception of the space around you involved? When was the last time you got to sing, or shout? See, at
...and Step Two. These two images are from
 an experiment on the Exploratorium website.
They show a fun proprioceptive thingamajig
you can do right at your desk! While you read
this post! Click to try the experiment!


all those things are involved. One of the few others I can think of that checks a lot of those boxes is the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I'd consider including botantical gardens in there as well - after all, what's a botanical garden but a living museum of plants? Of course, it's true that it's not always appropriate or necessary for every museum to engage the senses so intensely. It's not like the internet makes the actual physical presence of things less real (although man, was I disappointed by the Mona Lisa. It's so small! and kind of dingy! Or maybe it just looked that way behind the ten million tourists all taking flash pictures of the bullteproof glass case, I don't know. I digress, as usual.) Seeing a tiny picture of the amazing carved wooden masks from the Pacific Northwest tribes at the Natural History Museum in New York, for example, is totally not the same as looking at them right there in front of you in all their splendor and awesomeness. (Oh, by the way: on the topic of Pacific Northwest tribes, I succumbed to some bitching about the way Stephanie Meyer ripped off the Quileute Nation's mythology in my last post. If you're interested, here's the Native American Netroots' view on that particular bit of utter lack of awesomeness.) The thing is, though (what is the thing? I keep getting lost in my own parentheses, it's a terrible habit) that we are spending more and more time with 2D things. Devices. iWhatevers. Computers. You know how hard it is to walk through an art museum without getting in the way of at least one person's photo-of-a-piece-of-art-that-already-exists-in-eighty-jillion-digital-iterations-already? VERY hard.

Which reminds me of this, speaking of interactivity/creativity/incredibly annoying tourist photos:

See, that's what art museums need! Pranksters! People who get you to think about what you're doing/looking at/incorrectly imagining to be original in a hilarious, nonaggressive, highly entertaining, interactive way. I guess I just mean that I think we're more than ever in need of spaces and places that teach us things by letting us use our hands for more than typing something into Google. And this, this joyful sense of play, is precisely why I value the Exploratorium - both for being


and for me, on a totally personal level, as the place to learn the things that will help me build a museum that actually gets to the heart of what joy is and how we experience it. I can be helpful with all the things! I can grantwrite, or at least edit (I am a badass copyeditor when I'm not blogging - I get too excited when I blog.) I can lean about project management! And donors! And exhibit repair! And signage! And GIANT LASER CUTTERS with which to make amazing things! (The Exploratorium makes all their own exhibits in-house. How cool is that??) And curation! And how to make sure there's a decent snackbar! You know, the important stuff. No, I mean really. It's a learning experience that is as hands-on as the museum itself. And because I really love the Exploratorium and really support what they do, it's a joy and a pleasure just to be there.

I guess I just can't imagine grad school working like that, somehow.

What do you think? Am I crazy? Are genuinely interactive exhibits not the coolest thing ever? Do you have a volunteering experience that made your life magical? What's your favorite non-traditional museum display? Should I give up and get a degree like a normal person?

*Credit to Kate Sherrod's Puttin' The Blog In Balrog posts for teaching me that appropriate use of spacing is integral to underscoring ultra epicness. Thanks, Kate. 


  1. And, still, my favorite exhibit is the bubbles.

    Of course, you're crazy, but what's wrong with that?

    There's this museum in Arkansas (I'm just assuming it's still there) that had this big thing of ice that was really cool. You could do things like leave hand prints in it. But it had some kind of slow drip thing, so it was growing and melting at the same time.

    1. Aw, gee, thanks, Andrew.

      That ice thing sounds AWESOME. Can we figure out where it is? I want to see it!!

    2. The Mid-America Museum of Science. It's near or in Hot Springs, but I haven't been there in more than 20 years.


Please do try to be thoughtful and considerate when posting comments, but we do love hearing what you think!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...