Behind the Scenes: Working and Playing in Izmit, Turkey
by Kevin Boyd • June 8, 2015
The Exploratorium's Global Collaborations division reviewed technical drawings and oversaw the building and installation of exhibits at the Koaceli Science Center. (Photo courtesy of Dave Johnson)
Dave Johnson was one of four Exploratorium exhibit extraordinaires who spent four months overseas, helping to get the Koaceli Science Center (KSC) in Izmit, Turkey ready for its April 18 opening. KSC is located in the historical SEKA Factory site, about 100 kilometers southeast of Istanbul, and is part of a national initiative to open more than 81 science centers in cities throughout Turkey. Global Collaborations, the Exploratorium’s international consulting and exhibit development department, partnered with TÜBITAK, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, and the Municipality of Kocaeli for this project.
From refurbishing 40 exhibits and setting up an exhibit maintenance shop, to enjoying traditional Turkish fish sandwiches called balık ekmek and bonding with a dog named Jarvis, Johnson spoke with Maria Zilberman about his experience working abroad. Their interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your role in the Koaceli Science Center project? Who did you work with?
There were four Exploratorium contractors. Kua was more or less the boss, running things. I was more of a computer and electronics guy than the other two worker bees [Billy and Schulyer]. I did anything that involved computers or reprogramming exhibits, but sort of anybody could do anything. One part was refurbishing the used exhibits that [KSC] bought and the other part was setting up a workshop so that they could do their own exhibit repair. Sometimes we couldn’t really do anything on a particular day [because we were] missing a piece we need and could only get it the next day. We would always find other useful things to do, and typically that was something around the workshop. Schuyler was always building shelves and new storage units, kind of organizing the place.
What was it like setting up a shop for a new museum?
The focus was to make a wood shop and a metal shop, with things like a milling machine, a welder and a plasma cutter for metal work, hydraulic shears, a planer and jointer, all purchased locally. We spent a fair amount of time early on going around to shops that sold this kind of stuff and looking at their tools. By the time we were done, it was really a pretty complete wood shop and metal shop and had all the tools to do most of the stuff we do at the Exploratorium. We [also] had to find local vendors who could do things like powder coating and laser cutting acrylic.
How was the pace of your work? Were there times you had to adapt on the fly?
There were lots of schedule adaptations. For instance, we got to Turkey and the exhibits hadn’t arrived yet and it took a couple of weeks before they finally arrived. So we had to make do, do whatever we could before the exhibits got there to get ready. And a big thing that happened is that after the holidays, Kua sent back a crate of parts that we desperately needed to finish the job. And that crate got stuck in customs for seven weeks. In the end, we were kind of panicking that we wouldn’t have the parts we needed to finish the job. They ended arriving just in the nick of time so there was a flurry of work to get everything done.
How did you communicate and get around?
It really was a daily challenge, a fun one, actually, and pretty successful for the most part. A few people at the museum spoke pretty good English and most of them spoke at least some English. The new version of Google Translate is actually really good, and everybody had it on their phone. It was pretty cool, very futuristic. And of course there was lots of gesturing and lots of miming, lots of drawing pictures, all that kind of stuff. But it was fun, and part of what made it fun is that the people there were just fantastically warm and welcoming, the people at the museum and just the people in Turkey in general.
Your blog is full of photos of the delicious food you ate. What was your favorite dish?
These fish sandwiches we could get right across the street [from KSC] and across the water, served on a boat. It was just the simplest sandwich. Just some grilled fish… we actually ate that quite a bit. It cost five Turkish lira which was about $2 or $2.50.
How about the dogs you met? Which ones did you get to know best?
Probably the ones that we saw all the time were George and Jarvis, who lived in our apartment building. In Turkey, most of the dogs you saw around the city had a tag in their ear and that just means that they were taken in and vaccinated and fixed. George and Jarvis -- that was just their neighborhood, so that’s why they were always there. There was a guy who was sort of the caretaker to the building, and he told us their names. Dogs that would come by the museum, we named them ourselves -- Scaredy Mom, Lumpy -- and there were a couple of others who were around every once in a while, maybe five to seven others. And we wouldn’t see them every day, but we’d see them often, at least once or twice a week. I’m a real dog lover, so I of course really enjoyed it.
Learn more about Dave’s experience by checking out his blog. You’ll find plenty of post and pictures, and even get to meet Tiny Dave—the gallivanting 3-D model of the real Dave.