Can the Exploratorium Help Us Explore History?

Last week I visited the Exploratorium in its new home on Pier 15 in San Francisco. If you haven’t veen there, it’ll seem like a science center but you’ll quickly discover it’s really a place about learning, especially through direct experiences with art, tinkering, and phenomena (yep, that’s how they describe it).  It’s an incredibly active place (almost to the point of overwhelming) that seems to effectively engage its visitors, so I continually watch to see if any of their exhibits or ideas can be applied to historic sites or history museums.  During my latest visit, I found two exhibits that with a mild tweak could be really be innovative for interpreting history.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

1.  Question Bridge:  Black Males.  This temporary exhibit is, “comprised of many individuals asking and answering questions about the experience of black men in modern America.”  Inside the small dark room are a few chairs facing five video screens at eye-level that alternate African American men of different ages and backgrounds “discussing” such questions as, “Why didn’t the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement leave a blueprint for the next generation?”  According to the exhibit designers:

The core methodology is this: on video, a black man asks a significant question of another black man they feel estranged from; on video, a black man representing that difference records his answer. These question-answer exchanges create a Question Bridge, a media-based forum for necessary, honest expression and healing dialogue on themes that divide, unite, and puzzle black males in the United States.

I found it incredibly engaging because you can safely listen to a meaningful discussion on provocative topics and hear different perspectives from people you would ordinarily never meet.   The whole experience lasts about three hours but I struggled to pull myself out of my seat after 15 minutes to ensure I saw the rest of the Exploratorium before it closed.  The tweak I might suggest for history museums is to include more historical perspectives or questions into the mix, such as, “did anyone in American history inspire you?” or “why does your family history matter?” or “why do you avoid museums and historic places?”  I could also see this format tackling other difficult or sensitive historical subjects, such as slavery, anti-semitism, women’s rights, the westward movement, or the treatment of native Americans.  The exhibit has visited the Oakland Museum of California, Missouri History Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum, so you might see it travel to a museum near you soon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

2.  The Changing Face of What Is Normal:  Mental Health.  This temporary exhibit, “investigates the idea of normality through a personal lens.  Its primary goal is to prompt you to reflect on what normal means to you.  Does your view of what is normal change with time?”  Using objects found in the attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center in New York when it closed in 1995 and the records of the patients, it compares diagnoses then and today to show that “normal can be a highly personal concept–and almost everyone might be seen as normal…or abnormal.”  The exhibit labels feature a patient’s symptoms with two diagnoses– then and now–next to a display of his or her belongings.   The trunks displayed with personal objects from decades ago are intriguing (I’ll admit it does seem a bit voyeuristic), however, by themselves they didn’t seem to tell a story or have any relationship to the interpretation.   That’s the tweak I’d make–what do the objects tell us about the patients in addition to their psychiatrist records?  What did they mean to them?  What do they mean to us today? What do our belongings reveal about us?