Culture Strategy Partners

Oppenheimer and Museums

Published in Curator — The Museum Journal July 2010

Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up

By K.C. Cole. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
416 pages. Hardcover: $27.00.

Doom and gloom, gloom and doom. Cultural participation back to 1982 levels, budgets stretched thin, layoffs and furloughs, endowments decimated. Art sold for overhead, expansion projects suspended, government support drained. Unemployment about 10 percent, terrorism at home and abroad, melting ice caps.

In this unsettling world, to whom should museums look for a much-needed dose of optimism?

Believe it or not, I suggest we look to Frank Oppenheimer, one of the handful of men responsible for building the only atom bombs ever used in war. Curiously, a man who helped develop weapons of mass destruction also contributed a rubric for building an exemplary museum. (This rubric is summarized below.)

Twenty-four years after the Manhattan Project (which was run by his older brother Robert), Oppenheimer conceived of and built the Exploratorium in San Francisco. This “woods of natural phenomena,” as he called it, is a model we should all look to for inspiration and guidance. The usefulness comes not from the revolutionary resources or programs he deployed (such as using spare factory parts to build exhibits or employing high school “explainers” as docents), but rather for the results these produced.

The Exploratorium is perhaps the most elegant manifestation of a museum environment that inspires viewers’ sense of wonder and self-motivated involvement. In some respects, this collection of amazing and amusing exhibits shares the traits of the cabinets of wonder, those collections of exotica often considered the historic root of the modern museum. Those arrays of objects, however, were usually ad hoc compilations lacking a central theme beyond exposing visitors to the previously unknown or celebrating the natural curiosities of the known world. The Exploratorium is equally fascinating, but more purposeful in its approach and less dependent on rare or valuable artifacts. It presents a coherent environment of cause and effect in order to transcend mere amazement and prompt inquisitiveness. Its growing and evolving exhibits explore the impact of nature, culture, and context on human perception and cognition.

You’re thinking, perhaps, that your favorite museum also achieves this coherent theme, and I hope that’s the case. The best way to make sure is to visit the Exploratorium the next time you’re in San Francisco. Watch how visitors use it, claiming it as their own and at the same time sharing it with others. Watch how they interact with the exhibits, with their friends, and even with strangers. Watch them run, touch, muse, laugh, share, and, inevitably, learn.

You’ll notice that, while the exhibits are physically the same for everyone, each visitor chooses how to engage with them, making his or her experience unique and personal. Each visit can generate wonderful emotions: happiness, freedom, awe, recognition, mystification, desire to dig deeper, camaraderie with others. I believe these sorts of sensations, individually and collectively felt, are a necessary foundation upon which we build optimism about the future. And isn’t that a crucial function of museums—to contribute to an optimistic future?

Then be sure to stop observing and become a participant yourself. You will experience the benchmark for a great museum—inspiring visitors to share responsibility for their own experience. (And if after visiting the Exploratorium you still think your museum meets that high standard, drop me an email. I’d love to come see it!)

K.C. Cole obviously shares my enthusiasm and affection for the Exploratorium. Her provocative and enlightening biography, Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up, goes beyond the history of the Exploratorium to (re)introduce us to Oppenheimer the individual. Cole, a science writer for the Los Angeles Times and professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism as well as a long-time Oppenheimer collaborator, friend, and confidant, efficiently recounts his wide-ranging experiences, from a privileged Upper East Side childhood, to explorations ranging from socialist politics to sub-atomic particles; his leading role in the Manhattan Project, followed by McCarthy-era ostracism; and a temporary exile to ranching and teaching high school science in western Colorado.

Then, in 1967, Oppenheimer moved to San Francisco. Within two years he opened the Exploratorium, which he led until his death in 1985. It’s hard to know if this civic gesture was his attempt at redemption for his work on the bomb; Cole, as hagiographer, certainly considers this possibility.

Oppenheimer seems to have seen himself as having a moral obligation to open people’s minds by providing access to the mysteries and seemingly hidden origins of the contemporary world. This included opening our eyes to the practical uses of scientific phenomena, such as how the structural integrity of a catenary arch assists in bridge building, as well as to the political implications of human understanding, such as how “optical illusions” can exist in political conversation just as they do in an Escher print. Oppenheimer struggled against the trends that distance us from the basic building blocks from which our mass-produced goods, social structures, and political systems are constructed, hoping to restore to us knowledge and agency.

A great benefit of Cole’s book is that it forces us to consider how today’s museums—science, history, art, culture, and so forth—can respond to many of the problems around us by restoring visitors’ aptitude for wonder. The book isn’t a “how to” but, like the Exploratorium itself, provides great information from which to glean inspiration and even tactics. Here are my gleanings from Cole’s book, seven of the “rules” that the famously non-rule-bound Oppenheimer seems to have used to make something incredibly wonderful happen.

1. Museums are political acts. As recalled by Oppenheimer colleague and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, the Exploratorium’s “ultimate goal was to get people so addicted to understanding that they would somehow become inoculated against the clever deceptions of some advertisers and politicians . . . to use those brains of theirs to get involved, to add to the collective wisdom. . . .”

2. Museums inspire learning. Museums fulfill their role by providing us with objects and information (be it scientific phenomena, art works, historical artifacts, or whatever) and the context in which to interpret them. The good ones create an environment for understanding, rather than teaching to a conclusion. This promotes individual agency rather than rote absorption.

3. Visitors are as smart as you are. Think of them as yourself or your lay friends. This will force you to be genuine in how you relate ideas. Cole tells us that Oppenheimer “didn’t want anything in the museum to convey the message ‘Isn’t somebody else
clever.’ ”

4. Be kind. Oppenheimer believed that, unlike a school course, “Nobody fails a museum.” He insisted that labels and instructions guide rather than test the visitor. Engagement, not competition, is the goal.

5. Rules must benefit the visitor. No photography in the galleries? Why not? No water bottles in the auditorium? Give it a try, see what happens.

6. Promote self-determination and serendipitous way-finding. Avoid turning visitors into passive travelers, constraining how they can navigate. “[A]lthough it seems essential that the museum be structured according to some underlying plan . . . it is also important that the people who use the museum not be forced to follow some preconceived pattern.” (This quote comes from an article Oppenheimer published in Curator in November 1968, entitled “Rationale for a Science Museum.”)

7. Demystify the museum. Put the “behind the scenes” on view by bringing functional operations into the open. Conservation, restoration, installation, even storage can all be virtually or actually visible. Oppenheimer wanted to reinforce for visitors the idea that “creating things can be noisy and messy. It’s done by ordinary people; stuff doesn’t just magically appear ready-made.”

Oppenheimer studied our world from the atoms to the cosmos and was committed to being free from preconceptions. Perhaps his most liberating “rule” (again, my ironic label) was uttered in response to a colleague who cautioned him about the limits posed by the real world. “It’s not the real world,” Oppenheimer famously replied. “It’s a world we made up.” As we each consider our own museums, it is important to remember that we have the ability, the obligation, to continually make up our world anew.