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In Memoriam: Dr. Sally Duensing

In Memoriam: Dr. Sally Duensing

In Memoriam: Dr. Sally Duensing

November 14, 1949–October 29, 2015

On October 29, 2015, the Exploratorium community and learning institutions worldwide lost a gifted educator, longtime friend, colleague, and family member.

Dr. Sally Duensing, who began her career at the Exploratorium, brought her own joy and enthusiasm for life and learning to people all over the world. With an openness and intellectual curiosity that drew others to her, Sally was an advocate for exploration and play, and a student of perception and cognition. She studied how people thought and learned, investigated the ways in which culture impacted understanding, and then brought those findings to the field of informal education, impacting the work of science centers, museums, and universities across the globe.

Sally came to the Exploratorium in 1973. A credentialed teacher, she joined the ranks of the museum's first Explainers, eager young professionals who were drawn to its unorthodox offerings. Sally put on a signature orange jacket and became part of the fledgling institution, which was then just four years old, learning about the exhibits and interpreting them for visitors and guests. As the Exploratorium grew, Sally took on new responsibilities, becoming a teacher-educator in School in the Exploratorium (SITE), the museum's first teacher professional-development program, and the progenitor of today's Institute for Inquiry.

At the time, the Exploratorium was just beginning to invent itself, and staff members pitched in wherever help was needed. Like others who benefitted from founder Frank Oppenheimer's penchant for allowing staff time to find their strengths and explore their own interests, Sally found herself in a position to help create the structure of the museum's early learning programs. Relying on expertise gleaned from her Explainer days, Sally created the museum's first exhibit-based learning curriculum, a model that paved the way for experiential learning that has transformed museums around the world.

Sally's warmth, her welcoming personality, and her knowledge of the museum made her the consummate ambassador. She showed hundreds of guests the behind-the-scenes workings of the Exploratorium and introduced them to the institution's pioneering philosophy and vision. She took on leadership roles in developing exhibitions on memory, language, and perception, and did original research with world-renowned scientists that resulted in the creation of exhibits still found at the Exploratorium and in museums worldwide.

Sally became expert in evaluating the impact of interactive exhibits, and used that knowledge to help guide exhibit builders responsible for interpreting science for the public. As founding director of the Exploratorium's Bernard and Barbro Osher Fellowship Program, she connected museum staff and visitors with legendary scientists, artists, and communicators, including perception researcher Richard Gregory, neurologist Oliver Sacks, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, developmental psychologist Barbara Rogoff, cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, and artist Tim Hunkin, among others.

Responding to interest from other museums, Sally also created two seminal NSF-funded programs: Science Exhibit Starter Sets, which introduced Exploratorium exhibits to other institutions, and the Exhibit-Development Staff Training Project, which trained museum staff in how to create, maintain, and take advantage of interactive exhibits. These new programs also allowed exhibit developers working internationally to share expertise, creating the basis for the Exploratorium's current Global Studios division, and seeding important education and communication networks, collaborations, and consortiums that still exist today.

It was this international view of exhibit development and informal science learning that launched Sally into a career that spanned not just the decades, but also the globe. In the 1980s, she worked with exhibit developers at the Cité des Sciences et l'Industrie at Parc de la Villette in Paris—an association that ultimately connected the Exploratorium with its past Executive Director, Goéry Delacôte. Later, Sally spent time working with science center staff in Trinidad, bringing a joyous clamor of steelpan drum music to the Exploratorium floor. Documentation of how different cultures modified exhibits for local audiences earned Sally her PhD, and helped the museum world see informal education in broader, more culturally relevant ways.

In 2002, Sally began a practice of consulting with museums worldwide, but never went far from friends and colleagues at the Exploratorium. From 2002–2005, she served as director at UC Santa Cruz for the Exploratorium's Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS). From there, she went on to become a Visiting Professor at King's College London (another partner in the CILS project), and then lived in Paris for many years, working with Ecsite, the European Network of Science Centers and Museums.

Sally's later research was focused on public understanding of science, the role of culture and society in informal science learning, and the design of informal science-learning environments. A prolific author and talented teacher, she was the 1993 recipient of the American Association of Museums' Museum Educator's Award for Excellence, and in 2000 held the Collier Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Bristol, in the UK. Sally was also a longtime advisor at Wellcome Trust, London's Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum of London.

A familiar presence at informal science conferences in both Europe and the United States, Sally regularly organized and participated in workshops and training events, bringing together the skills and knowledge of an international spectrum of museum professionals. From 2004 to 2010, Sally was the principal evaluator of PlayDecide, an international project that introduced public participation to many science centers all over the world. In 2012, she worked on an Ecsite project that implemented science communication policies in 70 European cities, and in 2013 returned to the United States to help consult on the Exploratorium's Science of Sharing project. Then, as always, she'd pop up at the museum, make the rounds, greet old friends, meet new staff, and bring in exciting new faces and talents to add to the Exploratorium family.

"For those of us privileged to know Sally personally, there are few who matched her enthusiasm for the Exploratorium and exemplified its spirit of boundless curiosity and optimism, open-mindedness, and generosity of spirit," writes Exploratorium Executive Director Dennis M. Bartels. "You felt instantly her friend, just by meeting her. Her curiosity extended to every kind of learner and world culture. I cannot begin to express my own sense of personal loss."

She will be missed.

Sally is survived by her husband, Ian Grand. A memorial tribute at the Exploratorium in San Francisco is now being planned.

Photo by Rob Langenbrunner (Paris, 2011)

Remembering Sally

"Sally was such a part of the Exploratorium and its extension to the world beyond its walls that it is hard to imagine our world going forward without her joyful spirit. I was always in awe of her amazing social ability to bring together so many different people effectively into the Exploratorium's internal and chaotic culture. She was the true Exploratorium evangelist, and as she spread the story with her personal charm, wit and insight to institutions and individuals worldwide, she really was one of the main reasons that the Exploratorium has been able to have the impact it has had."

—Rob Semper, Exploratorium Associate Director

"Sally was a legendary person in our field. She played a fundamental role at the Exploratorium in San Francisco since its inception. Her optimism and curiosity left no one who met her untouched. Sally changed the lives of many people, and she will be deeply missed."

—Andrea Bandelli, Ecsite (European Network of Science Centers and Museums)

"She was influencing us right up to the end. I miss her already—her easy smile, her passion for learning, her desire (and prodigious skill) to introduce people to each other to make great collaborations happen, and the goodness and kindness that shone through everything she did."

—Josh Gutwill, Exploratorium Director of Visitor Research & Evaluation

"Her tenets had always been superb guidelines in my work; I've used them again and again, like gospel, often in disputes with smartasses who thought they knew better. Her 'basics,' backed by solid experience, were and are timeless treasures for people trying to do a good job in a science center."

—Remo Besio, Former Executive Director, Technorama, Winterthur, Switzerland

"Sally loved being on the museum floor. Over time, she developed a keen sense of exhibits and strong interest in perceptual science. I will remember Sally as someone with an enthusiastic joy for learning and enduring optimism." —Charlie Carlson, Exploratorium Scientist Emeritus

"She taught me much. Not just about the chemistry of curiosity and learning, but about kindness and determined optimism and consistent belief in creative solutions. Her energy and ideas were central to so many projects."

—Hugh McDonald, Exploratorium Staff Scientist

"You always knew when Sally was in town because little notes would appear on your desk, often accompanied by copies of something you really needed to read. I still wonder how she managed to get that right again and again."

—Karen Wilkinson, Exploratorium Tinkering Studio 

"It is a sad day in Exploratorium history. Sally was always a bright spot wherever she was. Her laughter and sense of humor and whimsy will always pervade the Explo and all of us who were lucky enough to have known her."

—Ron Hipschman, Exploratorium Staff Scientist

"With unwavering curiosity, warmth, and energy, she had a profound ability to 'connect the dots' within the grand circles of learning. We have lost a star who made a difference in how the world learns."

—Georgia Heise, Museum Administrator

"She was a sweet, engaging, interested, and interesting soul. An integral part of the Explo's never-ending search to define itself. One of the building blocks of the place. A mensch."

—David Barker, Exploratorium Artist Emeritus

"Sally was a gifted educator. She was an instigator and innovator…and probably one of the best translators of Frank's vision, which she carried worldwide. I will miss her warmth and thoughtfulness."

—Lynn Rankin, Exploratorium Teacher Educator

"Sally was the most generous mentor and friend who traveled the world but always kept the Exploratorium in her heart."

—Mary Miller, Exploratorium Program Director

"A legend. She carried the Exploratorium spirit with her to many, many places."

—Thomas Humphrey, Exploratorium Scientist Emeritus

"Sally had a brilliant critical mind and a constantly glowing heart. We've lost a joyous Exploratorium collaborator, whose enthusiasm inspired us in every way."

—Diane Burk, Exploratorium Design Director

“Sally was my friend, teacher, and curious playmate. She brought me to the Exploratorium by inviting me to be an Osher Fellow. She taught me about the importance of “generativity” in designing exhibits that would generate interest and curiosity for visitors at any age and level of expertise — generative in inviting us to explore a phenomenon, and to be drawn into greater depth in asking questions of it. That generativity characterized Sally’s life and career, and it applies to all of us who are in the field of designing opportunities to learn. Beyond that, Sally showed us all how to live life fully.”

—Dr. Barbara Rogoff, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, UC Santa Cruz