San Francisco’s Exploratorium—arguably the most well-known, widely copied, and deeply
studied art-science mash-up in the world—is celebrated as an often-wacky blend of
serious content and creative chaos. This “museum of awareness,” as it was called
by its founder, has inspired neuroscientists (Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandron), musicians
(Laurie Anderson, John Cage), and poets (Muriel Rukeyser); it counts among its fans
Tibetan monks, schools in 48 US states, and corporations including Sony and IBM.
Its influence is apparent in museums in dozens of countries. Most recently, the Exploratorium
was in the news for its grand reopening in April, on Pier 15 on the San Francisco
What most people don’t know is that the Exploratorium was created by physicist Frank
Oppenheimer as a direct response to the atomic bomb.
On July 16, 1945, Frank Oppenheimer lay face down in the dirt alongside his famous
older brother Robert—so-called father of the atomic bomb—at the Trinity test site.
They felt the blast from the first plutonium bomb as it vaporized a New Mexico dessert
and grew into a roiling, glowing, green-and-purple mushroom cloud, its thunder echoing
off the mountains. Similar bombs would soon vaporize the Japanese cities of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, and Frank Oppenheimer, along with many of his colleagues, never got
over “all those flattened people,” as he called them.
The younger Oppenheimer had been a safety inspector at the test site, in charge of
plotting escape routes. But the only escape route that could lead to a semblance
of safety in a nuclear world, he thought, was a radical retooling of how people thought
about each other, their place in nature, culture, and war. Oppenheimer, like many
of those who saw first-hand the monstrous destructive power of atomic bombs, in general
agreed with Einstein, who said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will
be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
A museum may not seem like much of a match for the Bomb, but Oppenheimer believed
the only possible defense against the collective insanity of nuclear proliferation
was the engagement of everyday people. As he wrote in a 1968 journal article, “The
fruits of science and the products of technology continue to shape the nature of
our society and to influence events which have a world-wide significance. Yet the
gulf between the daily lives and experience of most people and the complexity of
science and technology is widening.”
With the aim of bridging that gulf, in 1968 he talked San Francisco into handing
him the keys to the Palace of Fine Arts, a pseudo-Roman 1915 World’s Fair relic that
for years had been used to store phone books and army trucks. He talked physics labs,
art institutions, and universities into helping him, along with local musicians,
artists, and a gang of passionate young people sometimes called “Frank’s hippies.”
“He could have talked Tom Sawyer into whitewashing his fence,” former Stanford president
Donald Kennedy said in an interview.
Oppenheimer’s buddies from the first plutonium bomb test helped, too. Physicist Robert
Wilson—who had the terrifying job of making final adjustments to the weapon as it
perched on its 100-foot tower during a lightning storm—created a miniature replica
of a particle accelerator for the museum. (Wilson went on to build what is still
the United States’ premier particle physics facility, Fermilab.) MIT physics professor
Philip Morrison, who drove the bomb’s plutonium core to the test site in the front
seat of an Army sedan, created dozens of exhibits. Wolfgang Panofsky, whose task
it was to fly over the glowing, purple-and-green radioactive cloud in a B-20 aircraft,
contributed pieces of the newly created Stanford Linear Accelerator, where he was
lab director, to the Exploratorium.
A unique philosophy. The place Oppenheimer created wasn’t like any other museum;
rather, it was an immense playground crammed with cool toys, a wild assortment of
mirrors, lenses, microscopes, resonators, gyroscopes, pendulums, cosmic rays, rainbows,
wave machines, soap bubbles, cows’ eyeballs, and lots of illusions. He only called
it a museum because, he said, “no one flunks a museum,” and he wanted people to feel
welcome and comfortable.
Specifically, he wanted people to go “sightseeing” around the Exploratorium, which
he thought of as a “woods of natural phenomena” where people could experience the
thrill of real discovery. The floor staff of “Explainers” were mostly local teenagers,
often from the inner city, and unschooled in science, until they were taken on at
the museum. There were no rules, no guards, not even an entrance fee.
It’s hard to pin down what made Oppenheimer’s unlikely experiment workable, but a
lot rests on its fundamental philosophy, which has remained mostly unchanged even
after 43 years. (Though Oppenheimer died in 1985, more than a dozen staff members
who worked with him are still there.)
A critical part of that philosophy was the focus on perception and awareness. People
don’t understand anything if they don’t understand how their minds work, Oppenheimer
believed. It’s important to see how easily people jump to incorrect conclusions,
and how common cognitive blunders are behind so much self-destructive behavior.
A big part of Oppenheimer’s philosophy, too, grew out of his refusal to accept the
popular notion that the public is incapable, irresponsible, uninterested, or unreachable.
He thought the oft-cited short attention spans of ordinary citizens were a result
of the thin gruel to which people were typically expected to pay attention, and that
supposedly “smart” and “stupid” people really weren’t that different: The ability
to solve a differential equation, he thought, was an infinitesimal advance over the
ability to talk and write. The ability to read Hamlet was unimpressive, compared
to the ability to recognize one’s mother. “The ability to dance gracefully,” he wrote,
“is rare and a delight to find, yet it is only a slight improvement on the ability
to walk.” It took everyone to win the war, he said, and it would take everyone to
win the peace.
Oppenheimer also made art an equal partner with science, a revolutionary idea at
the time. He often said that both artists and scientists were society’s “noticers,”
observing things that others missed. He believed fervently that the discoveries of
artists were as valid as those of scientists. Art, he said, reminds us of what it
means to be human. So from the beginning, as many exhibits were created by artists
as by scientists. When the architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller stopped by,
a woman accompanying him sniffed, “I thought this was an art museum. Where’s the
art?” Fuller waved his arm expansively and said, “It’s all around you.”
Hands-on experience. The Exploratorium took (and takes) play very seriously, encouraging
people to take risks, make mistakes, do things because they “feel” right, and rely
on aesthetics. The goal is to help visitors develop intuition about science and ask
questions based on real experiences. In a world where people don’t often climb trees,
fix cars, swim in water holes, collect minerals, or take apart bikes and watches,
there is a real need for a place to interact with natural phenomena, and to learn
the consequences of failing.
In today’s everything-digital world, it might seem surprising that people still flock
to tinker with in-your-face, old-fashioned, physical playthings. Some of the Exploratorium’s
major backers, however, are companies that made millions on virtual worlds, with
Intel, Adobe, and Google among the museum’s corporate donors. Their participation
makes a certain amount of sense, though. The creative forces behind successful digital
start-ups are much the same as those behind the Exploratorium: Misfits are sincerely
and explicitly welcome; the breaking of rules is encouraged; boundaries are fuzzy
at best; and chaos is considered an opportunity rather than a threat.
Like all small start-ups that grow into multimillion-dollar success stories, the
Exploratorium has had to change. Today it has entrance fees and more bureaucracy,
and even some rules and guards. But Director Dennis Bartels has no office and doesn’t
want one. The walls around one staff area are plywood, so passersby will feel free
to pound nails into them. The machine shop remains central, with a low railing, so
museum visitors can lean over and chat with the exhibit builders, like neighbors
over a backyard fence. From the beginning, Oppenheimer thought the shop should be
open and accessible; he wanted people to smell the dust from the saws and the oil
from the lathes.
Oppenheimer’s hope was that new kinds of thinking could help the general public see
nuclear weapons in new ways and some day come up with entirely new approaches to
controlling them. When faced with problems large and small, he often talked about
how you couldn’t let yourself by stopped by so-called real-world obstacles. “It’s
not the real world,” he’d grumble when people pointed out practical obstacles to
his wilder ideas. “It’s a world we made up, so we can remake it anyway we like.”
K.C. Cole is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, a professor at the
University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.