With more than 200 exhibits on seeing and hearing available to them, visitors to the Central Gallery will dive head first into the realm of the senses, then surface to learn that things are not always as they seem. “These are traditional topics for the museum,” says Senior Scientist and gallery curator Thomas Humphrey, who came to the museum in 1973. “They’re great playgrounds to explore art, science, and perception.”
In the Central Gallery, the topics of vision and sound are seen through a variety of lenses. There are physics-based exhibits on light that explore refraction, reflection, and rainbows. There are art pieces that use light as their medium, including Bob Miller’s iconic Sun Painting. “Perceptually,” says Thomas, “it’s all about how we take information in and make decisions about what our world really is.” At Ambiguous Cube, for example, a wire frame rotating uniformly in one direction seems to spontaneously change direction because the visual clues to its motion are ambiguous. “The exhibits help us explore our perceptual acuity, our perceptual blindness, and our response to ambiguous information.”
The gallery does the same for sound, from resonance to rhythm—encouraging visitors to let loose on five marimbas, for example, each made of different materials and producing different sounds. “The marimbas are tuned to the pentatonic scale,” says Thomas, who is also a musician. “Unlike a regular diatonic scale, the pentatonic scale has no dissonant intervals, only consonant ones.” That means no matter how little visitors know about music, whatever they do on our marimbas is going to sound good.
Getting visitors to bang on marimbas—or play with prisms, or jump into the air to create cool colored shadows—is what the Exploratorium has always done and will continue to do. Part of what “classic Exploratorium” means, according to Thomas, is fostering an environment of a working laboratory where visitors feel like participants rather than observers.
There are many ways to cultivate such an atmosphere, but one of the best, says Thomas, is to keep exhibits “lean and mean, and not too overdone.” They’re “working prototypes,” designed to invite tinkering and put science in the visitors’ own hands. “What we want to preserve,” says Thomas, “is less about objects and more about attitude. We want to preserve the idea that people learn best when their minds are open, their hands are working, and their senses are fully engaged.”
It’s also a long-held tenet that Exploratorium exhibits support a variety of learning styles. Visitors to the Central Gallery can puzzle out exhibits themselves, collaborate with other visitors, or ask for help from orange-vested Explainers (an Explainer Hub will be located in the Central Gallery). To take the explorations even further, Explainers or visiting teachers can access nearby props and tools to enhance the exhibit’s teaching potential.
In some ways, the Central Gallery is playing a preservationist role, providing a new venue for classic exhibits. It will also showcase new exhibits that reflect the latest developments in science as well as the museum’s time-honored approach to science education. The gallery will include new and refurbished exhibits that focus on seminal scientific discoveries that have transformed our understanding of the world.
The exhibit Newton’s Prisms, for example, replicates Newton’s famous seventeenth-century experiment in which he found that a prism could break white light from the sun into a spectrum of colors, and that a second prism could reassemble that multicolored spectrum back into white light again.
What happened when they wheeled the prototype out onto the museum floor? “We found that visitors would indeed follow the instructions and replicate the experiment,” says Thomas. But it didn’t stop there. “They were so captivated that they’d spend the next five to seven minutes just playing. That’s when we knew we’d succeeded. If you give somebody a playground of light and prisms and lenses, and they get so enchanted that they just keep playing around, that’s a really successful exhibit.” It’s also the sort of experimentation and serendipity the Exploratorium is working to preserve.
“The Central Gallery will be a public laboratory for scientific experimentation,” says co-curator Richard Brown in anticipation of the gallery’s emergence at Pier 15. The new space is not intended as a “new Exploratorium,” says Richard. “It’s just a new place for the Exploratorium to continue and extend its work.”