On a chilly Saturday morning, two Exploratorium Explainers wheel their cart into place among vendor booths at San Francisco's Ferry Building Farmers Market. But instead of offering up baby beets or artisan cheeses, these orange-vested emissaries of hands-on science encourage passersby to observe the world around them.
"Have you looked at the clouds today?" Field Trip Explainers Lianna Kali and Ann Bartkowski ask tourists, neighborhood residents, and even a group of field-tripping second-graders.
Then they bring out the props: a poster of the ten main cloud types, a globe, ball bearings, a bottle, and a bicycle pump—all the things they need to do their popular "Cloud Demo."
Field Trip Explainers are young adults who receive science training and provide support for field trip visitors to the museum; the cart is a way for them to take Exploratorium exhibits and demonstrations outside the museum's walls.
"The Cloud Demo is really flexible," says Lianna. "It can go in different directions, from using a bicycle pump to make a cloud in a bottle to using ball bearings to show the relative sizes of raindrops."
The Explainers' location—far from the museum's current home at the Palace of Fine Arts—is no accident. The Explainers are out to field-test their outdoor exhibits, not far from the Exploratorium's new campus at Piers 15/17 on San Francisco's Embarcadero.
Exhibit builder Jesse Marsh of the museum's Outdoor Group is there too, assessing how the current cart compares with the one he's prototyping back at the Exploratorium. The museum's "Outdoor Group" is charged with creating new exhibits that will animate the museum's new campus. "We're working hard to make the outdoor area around our new building as active as possible," says Eric Dimond, associate curator and project director of the Outdoor team.
The Outdoor crew and the two Explainers have been collaborating on the new cart for months. The latest incarnation of the vehicle, back at the shop, is an eye-catching trike, part Dutch cargo vehicle, part cabinet of curiosities.
Creative Collaboration & Place-Based Exhibits
The creation of the Explainer Cart, and the lessons learned at the Ferry Building, are part of an ongoing effort to develop new place-based exhibits and demos geared specifically to the museum's new waterfront campus.
With its 60,000 square feet of outdoor space perched between the city and the bay, the new environment will not only provide increased square footage, its downtown location also means that many more people will be in the museum's general vicinity. Some will be heading for the Exploratorium. Others will be surprised and delighted to stumble upon the museum and its array of offerings, both inside and out. These casual visitors are ripe for engagement with the Exploratorium's outdoor exhibits.
The evolution of the outdoor exhibits and the Explainer Cart is a study in creative collaboration. And it's an example of how our move to the piers is occasioning all manner of unexpected interactions and new ideas. "The Explainers knew what they needed," Jesse adds, "It was just a question of supporting them with our experience of physical infrastructure and exhibit building."
"Jesse has been very receptive to our ideas," says Lianna. "He created some beautiful props to go with the demos, as well as an amazing cart to house everything. I'd never participated in a process like this before. I loved learning about how builders take ideas and turn them into physical objects."
In fact, the collaboration goes beyond the work of the Explainers and the Outdoor Group. Mark McGowan, art director for the Exhibit Experiences group, created the cloud chart the Explainers used in their demonstration, and Toni Dancu of the Visitor Research and Evaluation department analyzed who stopped at the cart and how long they stayed, an indicator of the success of the experiment. "Once they're in, they're in," says Jesse, noting the interest level of passersby. "They stay for a good long while."
Once the museum is situated at Pier 15, the cart with its demos will be seen in various parts of the new outdoor space. The Explainers might even pedal it down the Embarcadero, taking their very engaging show on the road.