Contemplating the Exploratorium

I’ve been reading K.C. Cole’s, Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up. Oppenheimer was the founder of the Exploratorium, a San Francisco institution devoted to the exhibition of art and science.  The book makes for absorbing reading, both because I admire the Exploratorium and because I met Frank Oppenheimer a couple times, mostly through having been friends with his son, Michael for over 40 years. (Michael contributed our “LightWriter” exhibit.)

In my introduction to Mindport on the home page of our website, I mention the Exploratorium as having been one inspiration for Mindport. In reading Cole’s book, I was intrigued to discover that some of Frank’s stated intentions when he started the Exploratorium were startlingly similar to many of the ideas that we discussed when Joe Edwards, Robin Burnett (both since moved on to greener pastures), and I were forming the nascent Mindport in 1995. On one hand, I regret that I never had much conversation with Frank, but on the other, maybe it’s well that I didn’t, because he was a powerful personality and his influence might have derailed me from my own direction.

Michael Oppenheimer and I met in mid-60s, the two of us then employed as technicians at the University of Colorado, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). He and I have done a great deal of talking about our childhood experiences, museums and education. He has worked for the Exploratorium and for a number of exploration-style museums in various parts of the country. Our mutual experience in this area over the years has provided endless material for discussion, and has no doubt had its influence on Mindport.

Ultimately, reading Cole’s book led me to a re-examination of Mindport, born of very similar intentions to those which led to the Exploratorium. It interested me that the two organizations have evolved into radically different sorts of places, and I found myself once again curiously contemplating what Mindport has become, how we got here, where we might go in the future. . . and why.

One important factor that brought about the divergence of Mindport’s evolution from that of the Exploratorium is the matter of scale. The Exploratorium’s floor space is something on the order of 100,000 square feet, as compared to about 2500 here at Mindport. Our budget is correspondingly smaller, and our staff of eight is a mere fraction of the number or people (over 300) involved in the operation of the Exploratorium. Now and then, someone advocates the expansion of Mindport. My response is that I have no desire for Mindport to become bigger, that a staff of eight is about the largest size that can maintain truly personal relationships amongst themselves. This “small is beautiful” philosophy is crucially responsible for the congenial flavor of Mindport’s public persona.

I haven’t visited the Exploratorium for many years, but Cole’s book confirms my impression that it’s become increasingly focused on demonstrating particular scientific principles and exploring the science behind human aesthetic sense. It certainly seemed that way the last time I visited, which was about ten years ago. At Mindport, we’ve de-emphasized science instruction, per se, mostly because we find exploring WHY art affects us less interesting personally than the emotions and ideas good art actually succeeds in communicating. Personally, I don’t care to analyse the mechanics excessively because it defuses the magic of the expression.

The Exploratorium is a huge and busy hall, situated in the hanger-like Palace of Fine Arts. While we both share in common that we characterize ourselves specifically as a place for all ages, at Mindport we take much different attitudes toward young visitors. Frank Oppenheimer believed children should be allowed absolutely free reign. If they broke things, his attitude was that it was the staff’s job to fix them and make them stronger. Whether the Exploratorium still fosters the degree of “wildness” that it once did is unknown to me. However, at Mindport we discovered very early on that youthful energy is best kept contained in our own setting. In contrast to the Exploratorium, we are a tiny place, with a relatively minuscule budget, and the damage caused by “wild” behavior stretches our ability to keep up with repairs. Hence, out of necessity, we’ve come to regard Mindport as a quiet retreat, radically different than the sort of large-scale, high-profile operation personified by the Exploratorium. After long experience with children, sensory-overload, and hyperactivity, we’re convinced that children need structure and to be taught a degree of restraint, both for their own happiness and that of those with whom they associate. We also emphasize specifically the importance of respecting other people’s creative work. The Exploratorium under Oppenheimer apparently focused more on the content of the exhibits rather than their identity as pieces of creative work by individual artists, which is probably appropriate for an organization so much larger than ours.

The Exploratorium does admirable work, and it does it for a huge number of people. Having at one time felt overshadowed by such an example, especially since it initially served as an inspiration, I’ve been moved to examine the factors that influenced our evolution toward such different ends. To me, the ways in which the evolution of both living things and human institutions respond to environmental factors is fascinating to examine, especially since such factors are often discounted or not noticed at all.

As for the future, we’re considering taking a more active role in education, much as the Exploratorium has all along. But our educational focus will necessarily be different, oriented toward a contemplative and holistic view of reality, rather than paying attention mostly to scientific disciplines. We’re still discussing what specific form this program will take. Check the blog later on for further updates on this subject.

Kevin Jones