The Greater Good: Why We Need Artists in Science
The Meeting of Art & Science
By Peter Richards
A few years ago, while on leave from the Exploratorium, I helped to set
up the new Tryon Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. As
part of the process, the board of trustees formed a Diversity Committee
and charged it with finding ways to recognize, represent, and serve the
city's diverse community. At the first meeting, members were asked to
give a personal definition of "diversity" and express its value.
A local artist who spoke made a strong impression on me. She began by
talking about diversity in nature-how important it is to have in any ecosystem.
She talked about how systems that lose their diversity become weak and
vulnerable to disease or natural disaster. She touched on monocropping
and the Irish potato famine of the 1800s. Then she spoke of the vulnerability
of organizations, especially those that represent narrow points of view.
She described how alive she felt when she was around groups of people
from many places, cultures, educational backgrounds, and disciplines.
It was so simple. The artist was not stating a case for bringing people
to the table for their own good; her point was bringing people to the
table for the greater good. By getting us to think about diversity in
another context, she helped us to understand its universal value.
We are living in a time when the greater good is on a lot of people's
minds. We have better tools than ever to connect people, to give them
opportunities to learn, and to extend their capabilities of working with
others. Yet we seem to be becoming more and more cut off from one another.
This struck me at another meeting I attended recently, a gathering at
the Exploratorium's Center for Media and Communication (CMC), the department
responsible for the museum's webcasts.
CMC senior artist Susan Schwartzenberg was leading a discussion about
new ways of involving artists in the group's work. At one point, the conversation
turned to lamentations about how isolated everyone was feeling. Their
workload and pace left no time for real exchanges, staff members said.
It was so hard for each of them to know what the other was doing that
they hesitated to invite an artist, an outsider, to work in their midst.
If successful groups like CMC feel isolated, how can we hope
to regain a sense of community on a societal or global scale? How can small
pockets of people be linked to create broader communities? The artist in
Charlotte equated diversity with a stronger sense of community. If she was
right, what are the bridges that can help diverse people to feel part of
a larger whole?
Sculptor Michael Brown's Meanderings allows museum visitors to explore water's movement across a smooth surface. Photo by Esther Kutnick/courtesy the Exploratorium
These are complex questions for which there are no simple answers. Yet it
seems to me that the solutions lie in this matter of diversity and community.
Examining the culture of the Exploratorium might provide some models to
A glorious mix
When Frank Oppenheimer started his science museum in 1969, he had two tangible
assets: a 10-year lease on the last remaining structure from San Francisco's
1915 Panama Pacific Exposition and a rationale for a new kind of learning
Oppenheimer asked himself, "What would it take to get people excited
about learning about the natural world?" His answer to that question
was built around diversity-a glorious mix of disciplines, ages, cultures,
interests, backgrounds, philosophies, technologies, curiosity, and the collective
wisdom of a group of supporters. Over time, his vision evolved into a "museum
of science, art, and human perception."
A culture gradually emerged at the Exploratorium that nurtures playful
investigation, experimentation, and a propensity for taking risks-and
artists continue to be part of it all. Over three decades, hundreds of
visual and performing artists have spent time in the museum, creating
new works and programs and contributing in a variety of unscripted ways.
Under current director Goéry Delacôte, the museum continues
to evolve, metamorphosing from an institution with a regional audience
to one that serves learners, educators, and the museum field on a global
In that meeting with Susan Schwartzenberg and the folks from CMC, I spoke
up to remind my colleagues that one of the models for the exciting work
they do with new media was created long before their department was formed.
It began as an Artists in Residence project.
In 1974, while Pioneer XI was on its way to Jupiter, filmmaker George
Bolling presented a real-time broadcast of the event. From November 26
through December 2, as the satellite approached and then orbited the giant planet, Bolling-stationed
at NASA's command center in Mountain View, California-fed information
live via microwave link to the Exploratorium, where it was presented on
large-screen video to a huge audience.
More than 8,000 people showed up for the climactic evening of the Jupiter
Fly-By, when Pioneer swung behind the planet, losing contact with
Earth. During the long silence that ensued, everyone stood riveted to
the projection screens. When the signal was finally reestablished, the
audience erupted in a collective cheer of relief.
My point was twofold: (1) Thanks to the artist's vision, a community
of people were able to experience the drama of pioneering science,
and (2) although George's efforts did not result in a permanent work or
exhibition, his vision still resonates strongly within the institution.
Today's CMC media experts (many of whom have art school backgrounds) do
regular live webcasts from remote locations worldwide with journalists,
scientists, technical people, and educators, and they will soon be joined
by independent artists.
A creative community
In my own department, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL),
I have had similar conversations with staff about involving artists in
our programs. For us, it has been useful to recall the work of Kirk Roberts,
a shadow puppeteer who spent a year at the School-in-the-Exploratorium
(SITE) in the late '70s.
Roberts' work paved the way for a long involvement of artists in primary-school
curriculum development. Over time, the demand for these teacher/artist
workshops extended far beyond the Bay Area, and SITE evolved into the
Institute for Inquiry, now a part of CTL. The department, which also includes
the Teacher Institute and the Explainer and Outreach programs, is an important
vehicle for transferring the creative culture of the organization to other
institutions, and artists will continue to be among our messengers.
The December 2 climax of George Bolling's 1974 live Jupiter Fly-By event attracted 8,000 visitors to the museum.
Photo courtesy the Exploratorium
The contributions that artists make at the museum are perhaps most visible
in the Exploratorium's third department, the Center for Public Exhibition
(CPE). Encompassing much of the original museum, CPE is responsible for
public programs, exhibit development, and, most importantly, our physical
interface with 600,000 visitors a year.
CPE senior artist Pam Winfrey notes that when people arrive they are
struck by the scale, visual stimulation, and palpable creative energy
that permeate the museum. "These people are ripe for a memorable
experience, one that will tie them to all the other people who have had
similar experiences here," she says. "My job as senior artist
is to develop catalytic experiences that draw them into this vast community
of learners." Diversity is essential to the process, Pam says. "My
tools include my own artistic background, the talents of a huge pool of
Bay Area artists and beyond, and the expertise of our public programs
Liz Keim, film curator at the Exploratorium, has a similar programmatic
philosophy. She plays against visitor expectations by screening evocative,
highly unusual films made outside the educational and commercial markets.
"The films we commission and screen offer a way for our visitors,
in a public setting, to experience the way artists and scientists use
the moving-image medium," Liz says, "and to talk about how their
experiences and knowledge resonate with the other viewers and the screened
Among CPE's most popular attractions-both with visitors and with the
teachers who teach from the museum floor-are the exhibits created over
the years by the Artists in Residence. One clue to that success may be
the surprising turns an original vision or idea can take as it makes its
way from conception to realization.
When sculptor Michael Brown placed his Meanderings-a 1993 piece that
celebrates the way water moves across a smooth surface-on the exhibit
floor, he thought his dialogue with staff and the occasional visitor who
offered him feedback had come to an end. In a 1996 Exploratorium publication,
A Curious Alliance: The Role of Art in a Science Museum, Michael
described what happened next:
"I'd worked with [Meanderings] for months and months. I thought I
knew everything it could do. But within a week, people on the floor were
playing with it in ways that never even occurred to me. That's the way
things work here.... I made it originally, so I can claim it as mine,
but other people are continually reinventing what it can do."
For Michael, the surprise was that the exhibit had become much more than
a transfer of information; it had become a kind of extended conversation
between the artist and everyone who interacted with his work.
Visitors who play with Meanderings on the museum floor today are carrying
the process of discovery far beyond Michael's original vision, and teachers
who use the exhibit in their work still provide feedback to the artist.
This circular relationship is a form of creative collaboration: Different
minds share observations and insights, which, in turn, inform the creation
of new works.
How could all this have happened if it weren't for the diverse culture
of the Exploratorium? The elements of our "glorious mix"-artists
willing to ask naive questions, an institution that works to transform
those questions into experiences, scientists who discover sweet nuggets
of information through the process of inquiry, teachers who get excited
about the beauty of physical phenomena, and visitors who continue the
process of discovery-may differ in other institutions. But the value of
diversity remains universal.
The Exploratorium continues to look for ways for artists to contribute
as partners alongside scientists and educators. Like the artist in Charlotte,
I feel intensely alive when I am among a diverse group of people working
toward a common goal. The culture here is strong, and it continues to
grow and evolve. If that is not the greater good, what is?
Peter Richards, former director of the Artists in Residence program
at the Exploratorium, San Francisco, is currently Senior Artist in the
museum's Center for Learning and Teaching.