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Museum of the Uncommon Mind: The New Exploratorium Gets Wilder and Darker 

Wednesday, Apr 10 2013

On April 17, the new Exploratorium opens on Pier 15, boasting 330,000 square feet of metaphysical playgrounds and more than 600 exhibits — both indoor and outside — that serve as a testament to founder Frank Oppenheimer's experimental stance on learning, teaching, and interacting with the world around us. (It's also poised to be the first net energy zero museum in the world.) While his brother Robert is better known (for being the father of the atomic bomb), Frank was an inspired physicist in his own right — also aiding the Manhattan Project. His legacy of redefining education has made him synonymous with the Exploratorium, and in turn, the Exploratorium has become synonymous with celebrating science and the mind behind it.

Following World War II, Frank Oppenheimer was blacklisted — ah, the woes of the Red Scare — and he turned to cattle farming before finally landing a teaching job 10 years later at a Colorado high school. He wended his way back into university physics and soon was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new educational methods — namely the "Library of Experiments" — which served as the foundation of the Exploratorium when it opened its doors in 1969 at its original location, the Palace of Fine Arts.

Oppenheimer's rejection of conventional teaching methods has since yielded thousands of new teaching methods across the globe. The Exploratorium lays claim to the fact that currently 80 per cent of the world's science centers use Exploratorium-developed exhibits, which present science education as an interactive experience rather than as passive, look-but-don't-touch installations. By combining the artistic vision of 13 gallery curators and a stall of physicists, geneticists, biologists, chemical engineers, social psychologists, astronomers, and neuroscientists, the new Exploratorium is further pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a museum.

While the Exploratorium began planning the new space nearly 10 years ago, it wasn't until 2007 that a $300 million-dollar fundraising effort began. The 44-year-old Exploratorium closed its gates this past January and set its sights on Pier 15.

In addition to a sweeping, loft-like design, with one gallery flowing into the next, the new museum boasts double the classroom space of the previous site and an outdoor gallery, complete with a storm machine and an "Aeolian Harp" (about which see below), as well as 1.5 acres of free space with a plaza, promenade, and food carts. An all-glass observatory (and terrace) provides 360-degree views of the city and the bay; together manmade and natural elements collide in a series of exhibits designed to explore human impact and trace the evolution of our surrounding environment.

The $300 million price tag does more than bolster the Exploratorium's art, exhibits and grounds, however. April 17's opening also marks an expansion of the museum's programming, including late nights (until 10 p.m.) every Wednesday and Thursday. Thursdays it's also adults only (18+), so prime yourself for a stiff one instead of a stroller. Staff scientists, innovators, and artists will also gather for several series in the coming months, discussing the nature of perception as well as Bay biology, evocative cinema, and site-specific sound installations.

That the artists and scientists behind the exhibits will interact with the public is an echo of Oppenheimer's "learning by doing" paradigm — uncommon minds messing with the established way of doing things. In the previous space, that has translated into childlike fascination, a desire to tinker, to play. That's present in the new space, certainly; but here there's also a focus on the darker implications of "uncommon minds."

Pamela Winfrey, a senior artist at the museum — flanked by social psychologist Hugh McDonald, Ph.D. — is a 34-year veteran of the Exploratorium and designer of a new exhibition, "The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health." It marks a conscious departure from the previous Exploratorium's offerings.

"We wanted to really push interactivity," says Winfrey. "Can we take you to a place you can only go in your mind?" The previous incarnation of the Exploratorium focused on physical objects designed to be touched. "What is Normal" is more, well, normal in that sense; the interaction is with what is observed, how that plays with concepts in the mind.

The exhibition explores the difficulty of categorizing human behavior: how we should or shouldn't act, think, and talk. "Sanity" is constantly evolving as we make new discoveries — in neuroscience, medication, and behavioral studies — forcing us to question the stigma surrounding the "sick" mind.

Winfrey and McDonald are launching this exhibition to coincide with the latest edition of the increasingly controversial Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). With the publication of the fifth addition of the DSM this May, conditions will be both added and removed from the psychiatry bible. Some will be relieved to have their particular mental problem recognized; others will resent being dubbed mentally ill for something they don't believe is a disorder at all. (Like nail biting.)

Winfrey describes the growing controversy and ongoing DSM dialogue as a "rabbit hole," endless in its depth and contradictions.

Together with provocative videos featuring both clinicians and patients discussing mental health — personally, socially, and professionally — "What is Normal" also re-explores a fascinating exhibit first launched in New York: "The Lives They Left Behind," a collection of forgotten suitcases from the Williard Psychiatric Center, a decommissioned mental institution in the Finger Lakes of New York.

In 1995, workers in Williard's attic discovered 427 suitcases left by patients. Inside were cherished items from the patients' lives, objects meant to buoy their spirits while they were inside. In true Oppenheimer spirit, a Utica Crib — an adult-size wooden crib capable of being locked and becoming a cage — is also on display. Museum-goers are encouraged to lie down in the crib themselves and listen to a narrative of what it would be like to be shut inside as "therapy."

Not surprisingly, "What is Normal" questions the history of psychiatry and the detrimental effects it had on thousands of lives — everything from epilepsy (misdiagnosed as "convulsive episodes" and "clouded states") to simply being "odd, tactless and domineering" was considered grounds for being committed in the late 19th century.

"I think it's easy for people to look at those who are mentally ill and think, 'They're not me, they're the other,'" says Winfrey. "The exhibit makes you experience the human as a phenomenon and walk in someone else's shoes. It makes you think, 'I'm so glad I was born now.'" Winfrey hopes the exhibit will make people "reconceive their reality," forcing them to recognize that many of the people in the exhibit are no different from themselves: eccentric or ornery, prone to obsessions — above all, uncommon.

"It really is about eliciting that feeling," she says of future visitors: "There but for the grace of God go I."

About The Author

Katie Tandy


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