Dimensions November/December 1999
Exporting the Exploratorium:
Creating a "Culture of Learning"
By Sally Duensing
In 1980, I officially began to coordinate the Exploratorium's dissemination work with the international museum community. The grand opening of the Museo de los Niños in Caracas, Venezuela, two years later, was the starting point for my interest in how programs and exhibit ideas are effectively adopted and adapted in different contexts. During my visit, I watched hundreds of people interact with the same exhibits that I had watched people enjoy over the years in San Francisco.
What was (and still is) particularly moving for me is the way the same idea can intrigue people in widely different settings. Observing people, for instance, in Port of Spain, Helsinki, and Prague playing with different versions of the Exploratorium exhibit "Everyone Is You and Me" brought to mind similar reactions of Exploratorium visitors. In all of the versions, visitors face each other sitting down, with a half-silvered mirror between them. Adults and children everywhere delight in mixing the reflections of each other's faces in the mirror. From the first volume of the Exploratorium's exhibit Cookbooks compiled in 1975, through myriad professional workshops, internships, and exhibits it has developed for museum staff around the world, the Exploratorium has continually tried to be a resource for science centers. This dissemination effort has also led to a reciprocal dialogue, in which the science museum community, in turn, became a resource for the Exploratorium's development. Discussions and debates with staff from other museums have encouraged Exploratorium staff to think more explicitly about their own approaches to informal education as well as to learn about other methods and ideas.
Importing, Then Exporting
In addition to exhibits created at the Exploratorium by staff, artists, and scientists in residence, and then exported, there has also been a flow of ideas into the Exploratorium from other members of the science center community. In fact, some ideas credited to the Exploratorium originally came from other institutions and were adapted in some way by Exploratorium staff to become "Exploratorium classics."
For example, the "Soap Film Painting" exhibit, which has been widely exported via the Cookbooks and versions the Exploratorium has built for other museums, was developed through a series of contributions by several people. The exhibit began with a small tabletop version created by Bernie Zubrowski at the Boston Children's Museum. When Bernie was an artist-in-residence at the Exploratorium, he and I discussed some ways this idea could be scaled-up to become a large soap film sheet of color. Shortly after that conversation, Kit Kube, now an exhibit developer at the Science Museum of Minnesota, created a prototype of this scaled-up version during an exhibit development internship at the Exploratorium. Artist Ned Kahn fine-tuned the design.
In addition to exhibits, the import and export of programs has also followed a dynamic evolutionary pattern. Perhaps the most widely duplicated of these is the Exploratorium's high school explainer program, in which high school students assist visitors with exhibits and lead demonstrations. Many science museums in the U.S. and other parts of the world say that they have based their own models on the Exploratorium's program.
But the idea did not actually originate in San Francisco; rather, it was adapted from the Palais de la Découverte, in Paris. When planning the Exploratorium in the late 1960s, Frank Oppenheimer visited the Palais and noticed how exhibit areas would come to life when staff conducted demonstrations. Oppenheimer then initiated a floor staff program in San Francisco, but it differed from the Palais in a variety of ways.
At the Palais, the floor staff are either graduate students or practicing scientists. Wearing white coats, they conduct structured demonstrations in specified areas of the exhibit galleries. At the Exploratorium, by contrast, the floor staff are high school students, mostly with little science background. They conduct demonstrations, but their primary job is to wander among the exhibits and casually interact with visitors. They wear orange vests that call attention to their presence, but not in the "lab coat" stereotyped image of the scientist.
In a seminar I gave at the Palais in 1990, the staff expressed interest in having teenagers as floor staff, but they felt that this program would not work in Paris. They felt the French people would want more information than the Americans and thus would need scientists or graduate level students on the floor assisting them.
In the following year, this assumption was actually put to the test by one of the Exploratorium's teenage explainers, who spent a summer working at the Palais de la Découverte. She found no apparent difference in the amount or level of information that visitors wanted in Paris and San Francisco, but the style of interaction differed. At the Exploratorium, it is rare for visitors to approach explainers. Most of the time, the explainers have to approach the visitor to offer assistance and explanations. At the Palais, it was the exact opposite. Our explainer said that she was never left alone. Parents would often push their children towards the explainer and say something like, "Please tell my daughter how this exhibit works."
The Paris staff's assumptions about their visitors clearly shaped a different program than the one in San Francisco. In adapting part of the Exploratorium's approach by hiring a non-scientist teenage explainer, the Palais staff were able to broaden their view of what was possible at their museum. Embedded cultural assumptions can create responsive programs for visitors, but they can also limit one's views.
Reflecting on Adaptations
The heart and soul of exhibit and program dissemination and exchange, for me, is that the ideas are not static, but continually change. Changes can increase the effectiveness of an idea to more specifically fit the needs of different science centers, or, more generally, enhance the idea for science centers as a whole.
For example, while experimenting with exhibit ideas for a temporary science center, high school students in Barrington, Ill., enriched some of the ideas from an Exploratorium Cookbook--specifically, the "Impossible Triangle Illusion" exhibit, in which three pieces of wood joined at right angles appear to create a triangle from a particular perspective. The students added lighting that threw a shadow of the figure onto a wall. The viewer could simultaneously see the illusory triangle as well as the actual structure.
Over the years, I have documented some of the changes made to Exploratorium exhibit ideas by staff from other science centers. Some changes used by other museums seemed to improve the overall effectiveness of the Exploratorium exhibit design, while some almost destroyed the idea. The versions that I've felt were negative restricted the kind of experimentation or depth of conceptual exploration encouraged by the original. Exhibit adaptations that seem to enhance the existing idea often added new dimensions for the user to think about or explore.
In some situations, museums have altered exhibits to make them better fit their own culture. In planning their children's museum in Mexico City, staff at Papalote, Museo del Niño, for example, designed more space around each exhibit than is allowed for in San Francisco. They anticipated that family groups visiting their museum would be larger, on average, than those visiting the Exploratorium.
At a small neighborhood science center, Espaço Ciencia Viva, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, many of the exhibits began as versions of Exploratorium ideas, but were ultimately designed to be more like activity tables at which museum staff would talk and work with the visitors. The staff in Rio felt that, to effectively reach their public, the highly social culture of Brazil should be reflected in the format of the exhibits.
Bringing an Idea Back Home
The Exploratorium has modified some of its exhibits after learning about a positive adaptation elsewhere. For example, with the ubiquitous exhibit called the "Bernoulli Blower," there are a variety of sizes, shapes, and materials that museums have used to create the phenomenon called the Bernoulli effect. In the exhibit, a ball hovers in a stream of air created by a blower because of pressure differences between the rapidly moving air within the stream
and the more stationary air outside the stream.
The original Exploratorium version had a beach ball hovering above a large orange highway cone. The Barrington, Ill., high school students devised their own modifications. They put the blower on a pivot, enabling users to tip the air stream, and the ball, to a 45 degree angle. This flexibility was adopted by the Exploratorium.
Staff at the Yapollo National Science Center in Trinidad added a basket which contained balls of different sizes, shapes, and weights that people could try individually or in combination. When visiting there, I would often see the floor staff working with a group of people, trying out various arrangements of balls to see what would happen. By allowing visitors to experiment with different combinations, the Yapollo staff created a rich inquiry experience. Some of the effects were quite surprising, especially when large balls and small balls were in the air stream at the same time.
To reproduce the rich experimentation that occurred in Trinidad, we put a basket containing balls of different sizes and shapes next to the Bernoulli Blower at the Exploratorium. Immediately, I noticed that people began to group around the exhibit trying different things, watching other people, commenting on various results, and often laughing.
The basket idea did not last in San Francisco, however. Often times, the balls got lost as they became devices for other kinds of spontaneous games and ended up under exhibits or in other parts of the museum. Floor staff need to work closely with visitors in order to make the modification a success, and at the Exploratorium, exhibits are, for the most part, meant to work without a staff person present. Yapollo has enough floor staff that there was almost always someone near the exhibit to initiate the experimenting with the different balls or to find lost balls. Although not all inquiry-rich exhibits need increased staffing, exhibit adaptation may involve modifications other than design.
Issues Concerning Export and Exchange
While the exchange of ideas from museum to museum offers great opportunities for learning, a number of issues have emerged. One concerns the ownership of ideas. There is considerable tension between the open availability of information and the economic livelihood of people and institutions--a conflict that has been addressed at ASTC conference sessions, and in a series of articles in the ASTC Newsletter (May/June 1998).
Other issues revolve around the mission or intent of the museum. Several years ago, the director of a European museum under construction told me that, in his opinion, the Exploratorium exhibit Cookbooks had "polluted" the science museum field. Although I have always valued the Cookbooks as a resource for the field, his comment, though perhaps a bit extreme, pointed to an important issue. Ideas from established science centers are sometimes given priority over locally generated ideas, and the outside expert's ways of doing things automatically taken as "the right way." In addition, it usually takes far less time to duplicate an existing idea than to create one from scratch.
The Cookbooks were never meant to be blueprint plans of exhibits. Rather, they were designed to provide the necessary "ingredients" for museum staff. The key ingredients for any idea (from the Cookbooks or anywhere) is the quality of thought that goes into the concept and how it will serve the needs of a particular museum. Innovation for its own sake can be as empty as copying ideas just because they're from a particular place. The thought that goes into an exhibit may explain why ideas that are seemingly identical may feel generative and interesting in one setting and superficial and narrow in another-and why some science centers feel more alive and intellectually rich than others, regardless of their size.
Stories in the Field
Like exhibit and program ideas, there are stories in the science center field that are told and retold, because they illustrate universal perspectives. When I was visiting with the Yapollo Science Center's exhibit development staff in Trinidad, one of the senior developers told me the following story:
"A woman visited a science museum. And after seeing either demonstrations or science exhibits, she was able to go home and change the plug on her iron, not realizing it was so simple. But that's the effect [of science centers], to take the mystery out of things. You go to a science center and you come away understanding a little better how things work. And then you feel like, 'Hey I am able to do this.' The woman had never before put those two wires together, but put them together and you can do anything."
I was moved by this story, a version of one I first heard from Frank Oppenheimer almost twenty years ago. Oppenheimer had received a letter from a woman who had felt so excited by her visit to the Exploratorium, she had gone home and rewired her lamp. There were no exhibits at the Exploratorium that would have taught her how to do this rewiring, but instilling the empowering attitude that she could do it was what Oppenheimer always emphasized.
As a means of empowering their visitors, the Exploratorium and many other science centers highly value the notion of museum staffs' continually questioning, reflecting on, and evaluating what they are trying to do. Current Exploratorium Director Goéry Delacôte speaks of creating a "culture of learning" for the staff as well as the public-a culture that directly influences the quality of exhibits and programs at a science center. Encouraging museums to continually learn and reflect on their needs and intentions is, for me, the Exploratorium's most important export.
I feel very fortunate to be an active participant in these ongoing explorations and conversations about how we can be effective educational resources for our diverse communities.
For more information
Contact Joe Hastings, exhibit services, ph. 415/353-0438;
or visit the Exploratorium's web site at www.exploratorium.edu/
Some of the text for this article was adapted from a dissertation I recently completed in October 1999, which looks at the influence of cultural contexts upon what is created in a science center. The focus of this research was a case study of the Yapollo National Science Center in Trinidad and Tobago.
Sally Duensing is on leave from the Exploratorium, San Francisco, Calif. She will serve as Collier Chair, a one-year appointment as professor in Public Understanding of Science at the University of Bristol, U.K., from 2000 to 2001.