The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
My last post was about Edward Rothstein’s Times piece on the state of science museums, “The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas.” Today, a few words (and pictures) about MSI Chicago’s new $34 million permanent exhibit, which I'll bet Rothstein is going to love.
I spent a few hours at the exhibit this week, most of that time in the witty company of Charles McGhee Hassrick, a senior exhibit developer on the project. The other voice in my head was Rothstein’s, naturally, since the exhibit is a concrete example of several of his do’s and don’ts. So at the risk of letting him set the, um, agenda, I’ll just make a few quick observations that link up with his concerns.
First of all, there is little or no attempt here to foster social change, in fact nothing overtly political. The emphasis isn’t on protecting the natural world, it’s on experiencing natural phenomena first hand, ideally in ways that lead to understanding. Which is exactly what Rothstein calls for in his article.
But of course this “agendalessness” isn’t ideology-free. This is the Museum of Science and Industry, and there are more captains of industry than of science on its board of trustees. In a museum in which whole exhibits used to be designed and written by the corporations that sponsored them, we can be forgiven for reading Science Storms as in part a political statement about the proper (that is, limited) role of science: experimental inquiry and technological innovation, even artful wondrousness, but no stepping over the line into ethical pronouncements.
Or maybe this is just back-to-basics museology, a return to the hands-on empiricism of the Exploratorium and the self-driven discovery and play it encourages. Hassrick cites the Exploratorium as one of his personal inspirations, and the influence on him and the other developers and designers is visible in much of Science Storms, especially on the mezzanine level of the exhibit where the interactives are built on a more human scale. And Rothstein, you’ll recall, singles out the Exploratorium as an inspiring model of the kind of revolution that may still be possible in science museum thinking.
If there’s anything revolutionary about Science Storms, it’s the way it proves that the monumental and the intimate, the high-tech and the antique, can reinforce each other in the same setting if they’re done artfully enough. The main floor of the exhibit features huge, dramatically lit installations representing — almost recreating — the primal phenomena the exhibit wants to teach us about: tornado, lightning, avalanche, rainbow, etc. Back-to-basics hardly describes the theatricality here.
But big as they are, they’re all designed for visitor control and participation. The scale reminds us of nature’s sublime indifference to us little humans, but the interactivity gives us the comforting sense that we can make it ours, make it cooperate, at least long enough to understand it.
It’s a magical effect, and surely related to the fact that most of these large installations were conceived by (or in collaboration with) artists, many of whom work at the intersection of science or the environment and visual art. (Hassrick himself is also such an artist.)
More remarkably, arrayed amid all this bright and active (and occasionally loud) technology are cases displaying…well, what science museums used to display: some 200 artifacts of the history of science, now silent, still, and out of reach.
The juxtaposition works. People were looking at the cases and talking to each other about the space-suits and gadgets within. Sure, not as many as were gathered around the wind-tunnel capsule nearby, waiting their turn. But enough to validate the instincts of the exhibit developers that the historical objects will speak loudest if we see them cheek-by-jowl with the discoveries to which they led — and by the same token, that the fancy new interactives will be more meaningful if we see where they came from.
(Some of the objects here, by the way, are labeled in a way that seems jaw-droppingly understated. The silver object in this photo happens to be a metal-wrapped lodestone that Galileo used in his studies on magnets; it’s on loan from a museum in Florence. There's also a beat-up metal apparatus that Robert Millikan put together in 1923 to measure the charge of a single electron…and win himself a Nobel Prize. If I hadn't been with Hassrick, I wouldn't have known what I was really looking at.)
So, Science Storms fits the bill that Rothstein outlined in his essay. I expect that he’ll review it in the Times soon, and favorably. Meanwhile, there's much more to talk about, starting with the perennial question of whether the kids playing with the balls and buttons are learning anything about Bernoulli's principle or wave dynamics.
Let me know what you think of the exhibit, either from a first-hand visit or from what you see online. (And that includes all of you classical music, visual arts, and higher ed people — you and your families are the audience for this.)
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