Sunday, November 11, 2012

Exhibit Inspirations: Prismatic Windows

The Exploratorium's windows have prismatic treatments on them,
meaning that certain angles of light produce spectacular displays
of rainbow light all over the gray, industrial walls of the building.
I love my job at the Exploratorium with a degree of fervency approaching obsession. It remains incredible to me that somebody actually wants to pay me real money to hang out in the world's best science museum all day long. I work early hours, which suits me fine, since I'm that chipper morning-lover who drives everyone else crazy with my cheery ebullience in the wee hours of the dawn. This morning I was startled by something I'd never seen before: I walked into the cavernous darkness of the museum, maybe ten minutes early for my shift, and stopped short, bewildered, dazzled by the rainbows splashed across the walls. Gorgeous, rich, glowing rainbows. The grungy pipes and dusty beams were covered in them. Wires hummed with them. I've written before about the rather delightful darkness of the museum -- in fact the shadowy gloom is one of the things I will miss the most after our move to Pier 15 -- and it was just that darkness that made the sudden apparition of a glory of color so strange and wonderful. That, and the fact that I'd never seen it before. Not because I'd never noticed - it had simply never been there. I stood and stared. Five minutes later the brilliant colors were bleached and pale; ten minutes later they were completely gone.

What the heck just happened? 

Turns out the upper windows of our part of the Palace of Fine Arts have diffraction grating plastic on them. It splits the light into the spectacular rainbow display when it hits a certain angle, usually an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, according to Paul Doherty, senior staff physicist and all-around marvelous human being. Sometimes the display last as long as an hour, apparently. They were installed by the wonderful Pete Stephens, senior exhibit designer and similarly awesome person.

Glorious! Peculiar! Fleeting! What could be more joyful than
sudden unexpected beauty?
They were brilliantly inspiring. (Literally. Ha.) There was this startled whaaaat? wait a minute! and then nothing at all but delight, just pure transparent joy at the mysterious improbable radiance, and I stood drenched in it until they faded into nothingness as if they'd never been. The joy lay in the suddenness, the startling contrast of the beauty to the gloom, and above all in the transience - the first delight in the discovery, the second in the secrecy, the fact that I'd partaken in a fleeting, hidden moment, that I'd simply been lucky enough to witness some evanescent wonder. It was the spiritual equivalent of a quick cool shower, a kind of rinsing of the mind. And I got to thinking -- there's something perfect for a Museum of Joy in this. The idea of a whole hidden panoply of such mutable exhibits, tiny fantastical happenings that are only visible for a few moments if you happen to be looking in the right direction -- why, what delight there would be in seeing them! Not so many that you come to expect them, of course; just a handful, here and there. A momentary shower of rainbows. A door to a garden that can only be opened if you happen to see the ray of light illuminate the handle. A hundred birds suddenly flying across a ceiling. Flowers growing suddenly out a wall. A host of tiny mice in human clothing scurrying from one hole to another in a corner. An interruption by a thousand bubbles appearing out of nowhere. A quiet music only heard by standing just so in a pool of sunlight. All of them unmarked, unsigned, apparently at random, impossible to search for, each with their own peculiar logic. So, as you wander through the "real" exhibition, you find yourself suddenly immersed by some momentary experience utterly unlooked-for and therefore miraculous and holy.


  1. I'm all for that. Sounds incredible.

    dog in lap...

    1. Have you read Oliver Sack's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat? There's a brief little essay in there about him when he was a student - he's basically hopped up on amphetamines, as I recall, because he's so stressed out about med school, and he wakes up one day able to smell like a dog. It's one of the most amazing descriptions of unusual sensory perception I've ever read.

    2. I constantly want to be able to smell what my dog smells, because I just want to -know- what it is she's doing!

  2. These photos look like a lot of raves I went to in the 90s.

    1. And yet rave music looks so boring in my head. It's like watching a heart monitor of somebody with terrifying blood pressure - flat, spiky, and slightly alarming.


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