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Inside this issue:

The Greater Good: Why We Need Artists in Science Museums

Mirroring Technology

Whole-Body Learning: The Role of Dance in Science Centers

A Universe Shared

Taking Art and Science Public: A Project of the California Science Center

Please Touch

A Beautiful Wholeness: Art and Science at Universum

The Genesis of a Sculpture


Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: July/August 2002
July/August 2002:
The Meeting of Art & Science
The Greater Good: Why We Need Artists in Science Museums

By Peter Richards

A few years ago, while on leave from the Exploratorium, I helped to set up the new Tryon Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. As part of the process, the board of trustees formed a Diversity Committee and charged it with finding ways to recognize, represent, and serve the city's diverse community. At the first meeting, members were asked to give a personal definition of "diversity" and express its value.

A local artist who spoke made a strong impression on me. She began by talking about diversity in nature-how important it is to have in any ecosystem. She talked about how systems that lose their diversity become weak and vulnerable to disease or natural disaster. She touched on monocropping and the Irish potato famine of the 1800s. Then she spoke of the vulnerability of organizations, especially those that represent narrow points of view. She described how alive she felt when she was around groups of people from many places, cultures, educational backgrounds, and disciplines.

It was so simple. The artist was not stating a case for bringing people to the table for their own good; her point was bringing people to the table for the greater good. By getting us to think about diversity in another context, she helped us to understand its universal value.

Building Bridges
We are living in a time when the greater good is on a lot of people's minds. We have better tools than ever to connect people, to give them opportunities to learn, and to extend their capabilities of working with others. Yet we seem to be becoming more and more cut off from one another. This struck me at another meeting I attended recently, a gathering at the Exploratorium's Center for Media and Communication (CMC), the department responsible for the museum's webcasts.

CMC senior artist Susan Schwartzenberg was leading a discussion about new ways of involving artists in the group's work. At one point, the conversation turned to lamentations about how isolated everyone was feeling. Their workload and pace left no time for real exchanges, staff members said. It was so hard for each of them to know what the other was doing that they hesitated to invite an artist, an outsider, to work in their midst.

If successful groups like CMC feel isolated, how can we hope to regain a sense of community on a societal or global scale? How can small pockets of people be linked to create broader communities? The artist in Charlotte equated diversity with a stronger sense of community. If she was right, what are the bridges that can help diverse people to feel part of a larger whole?

  Sculptor Michael Brown's Meanderings allows museum visitors to explore water's movement across a smooth surface.
Sculptor Michael Brown's Meanderings allows museum visitors to explore water's movement across a smooth surface. Photo by Esther Kutnick/courtesy the Exploratorium

These are complex questions for which there are no simple answers. Yet it seems to me that the solutions lie in this matter of diversity and community. Examining the culture of the Exploratorium might provide some models to consider.

A glorious mix
When Frank Oppenheimer started his science museum in 1969, he had two tangible assets: a 10-year lease on the last remaining structure from San Francisco's 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition and a rationale for a new kind of learning center.

Oppenheimer asked himself, "What would it take to get people excited about learning about the natural world?" His answer to that question was built around diversity-a glorious mix of disciplines, ages, cultures, interests, backgrounds, philosophies, technologies, curiosity, and the collective wisdom of a group of supporters. Over time, his vision evolved into a "museum of science, art, and human perception."

A culture gradually emerged at the Exploratorium that nurtures playful investigation, experimentation, and a propensity for taking risks-and artists continue to be part of it all. Over three decades, hundreds of visual and performing artists have spent time in the museum, creating new works and programs and contributing in a variety of unscripted ways. Under current director Goéry Delacôte, the museum continues to evolve, metamorphosing from an institution with a regional audience to one that serves learners, educators, and the museum field on a global scale.

In that meeting with Susan Schwartzenberg and the folks from CMC, I spoke up to remind my colleagues that one of the models for the exciting work they do with new media was created long before their department was formed. It began as an Artists in Residence project.

In 1974, while Pioneer XI was on its way to Jupiter, filmmaker George Bolling presented a real-time broadcast of the event. From November 26 through December 2, as the satellite approached and then orbited the giant planet, Bolling-stationed at NASA's command center in Mountain View, California-fed information live via microwave link to the Exploratorium, where it was presented on large-screen video to a huge audience.

More than 8,000 people showed up for the climactic evening of the Jupiter Fly-By, when Pioneer swung behind the planet, losing contact with Earth. During the long silence that ensued, everyone stood riveted to the projection screens. When the signal was finally reestablished, the audience erupted in a collective cheer of relief.

My point was twofold: (1) Thanks to the artist's vision, a community of people were able to experience the drama of pioneering science, and (2) although George's efforts did not result in a permanent work or exhibition, his vision still resonates strongly within the institution. Today's CMC media experts (many of whom have art school backgrounds) do regular live webcasts from remote locations worldwide with journalists, scientists, technical people, and educators, and they will soon be joined by independent artists.

A creative community
In my own department, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), I have had similar conversations with staff about involving artists in our programs. For us, it has been useful to recall the work of Kirk Roberts, a shadow puppeteer who spent a year at the School-in-the-Exploratorium (SITE) in the late '70s.

Roberts' work paved the way for a long involvement of artists in primary-school curriculum development. Over time, the demand for these teacher/artist workshops extended far beyond the Bay Area, and SITE evolved into the Institute for Inquiry, now a part of CTL. The department, which also includes the Teacher Institute and the Explainer and Outreach programs, is an important vehicle for transferring the creative culture of the organization to other institutions, and artists will continue to be among our messengers.

The December 2 climax of George Bolling's 1974 live Jupiter Fly-By event attracted 8,000 visitors to the museum.
The December 2 climax of George Bolling's 1974 live Jupiter Fly-By event attracted 8,000 visitors to the museum.
Photo courtesy the Exploratorium

The contributions that artists make at the museum are perhaps most visible in the Exploratorium's third department, the Center for Public Exhibition (CPE). Encompassing much of the original museum, CPE is responsible for public programs, exhibit development, and, most importantly, our physical interface with 600,000 visitors a year.

CPE senior artist Pam Winfrey notes that when people arrive they are struck by the scale, visual stimulation, and palpable creative energy that permeate the museum. "These people are ripe for a memorable experience, one that will tie them to all the other people who have had similar experiences here," she says. "My job as senior artist is to develop catalytic experiences that draw them into this vast community of learners." Diversity is essential to the process, Pam says. "My tools include my own artistic background, the talents of a huge pool of Bay Area artists and beyond, and the expertise of our public programs people."

Liz Keim, film curator at the Exploratorium, has a similar programmatic philosophy. She plays against visitor expectations by screening evocative, highly unusual films made outside the educational and commercial markets. "The films we commission and screen offer a way for our visitors, in a public setting, to experience the way artists and scientists use the moving-image medium," Liz says, "and to talk about how their experiences and knowledge resonate with the other viewers and the screened images."

Among CPE's most popular attractions-both with visitors and with the teachers who teach from the museum floor-are the exhibits created over the years by the Artists in Residence. One clue to that success may be the surprising turns an original vision or idea can take as it makes its way from conception to realization.

When sculptor Michael Brown placed his Meanderings-a 1993 piece that celebrates the way water moves across a smooth surface-on the exhibit floor, he thought his dialogue with staff and the occasional visitor who offered him feedback had come to an end. In a 1996 Exploratorium publication, A Curious Alliance: The Role of Art in a Science Museum, Michael described what happened next:

"I'd worked with [Meanderings] for months and months. I thought I knew everything it could do. But within a week, people on the floor were playing with it in ways that never even occurred to me. That's the way things work here.... I made it originally, so I can claim it as mine, but other people are continually reinventing what it can do."

For Michael, the surprise was that the exhibit had become much more than a transfer of information; it had become a kind of extended conversation between the artist and everyone who interacted with his work.

Visitors who play with Meanderings on the museum floor today are carrying the process of discovery far beyond Michael's original vision, and teachers who use the exhibit in their work still provide feedback to the artist. This circular relationship is a form of creative collaboration: Different minds share observations and insights, which, in turn, inform the creation of new works.

How could all this have happened if it weren't for the diverse culture of the Exploratorium? The elements of our "glorious mix"-artists willing to ask naive questions, an institution that works to transform those questions into experiences, scientists who discover sweet nuggets of information through the process of inquiry, teachers who get excited about the beauty of physical phenomena, and visitors who continue the process of discovery-may differ in other institutions. But the value of diversity remains universal.

The Exploratorium continues to look for ways for artists to contribute as partners alongside scientists and educators. Like the artist in Charlotte, I feel intensely alive when I am among a diverse group of people working toward a common goal. The culture here is strong, and it continues to grow and evolve. If that is not the greater good, what is?

Peter Richards, former director of the Artists in Residence program at the Exploratorium, San Francisco, is currently Senior Artist in the museum's Center for Learning and Teaching.
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