of an Exhibition

by Nina Simon

Published on April 01, 2010

  • Description:

    I love science centers. My first jobs were in science and children’s museums. Where other adults cringe at the noise and insanity of your average whizzing, banging, zooming center, I (usually) revel in it.

    But science centers also frustrate me. They are so frequently populated by the same exhibits in the same primary colors. They have junky materials and broken exhibits. And even if the phenomena on display are complex and unknowable even for advanced scientists, the whole experience is typically geared toward children and stripped of its mystery and potential power.

    So imagine my delight to visit Explora in Albuquerque. The overwhelming experience I had while touring it wasn’t excitement or craziness or childishness – it was contented wonder. I never knew a science center could be so peaceful. There were plenty of screaming kids, but the design of the whole place absorbed and tempered their noise rather than frothing it up.

    What are the distinctive hallmarks of this extraordinary place? First, the exhibits are designed for focused, prolonged engagement. Each exhibit is in its own little nook, surrounded at least partially by temporary walls, painted in soothing desert colors. The director of exhibitions, Betsy, explained to me that they’d done research and found that the walls, which give the sense of an adobe hedge maze, slowed people down and helped them focus in on single exhibits for longer periods of time. The nooks are somewhat open to each other, so parents and kids can stay connected across five or so exhibits without being dumped all in one big mixing bowl. The nooks also provide kids with some protection from each others’ enthusiasms, so a girl hard at work for twenty minutes at the gear table is unlikely to have her project messed up by a glancing blow from a kid cruising past.

    The exhibits themselves are almost entirely custom-built by Explora staff. I found it endearing that Betsy expressed a small twinge of annoyance that they’d purchased any outside exhibits at all. There are few instructions, and the experience seemed to be genuinely about exploring as opposed to learning information. While sometimes I found the experiences overwhelmingly open-ended, I prefer that to the “explain it all away” approach that is more common.

    All the exhibit materials are natural and understated. The color palette has a soft New Mexico feel. Where the Exploratorium has a DIY garage look, Explora has more of a DIY backyard look. Everything looks deliciously, quietly touchable. Some of my favorite exhibits were the bench where you could “feel” the vibrations of notes you played on a keyboard and a series of gorgeous, simple water flow exhibits that allowed you to disrupt a waterfall and watch a stream move across a surface.

    Many of the exhibits are facilitated (there are 11 paid floor staff plus volunteers in the museum at most times). I particularly enjoyed watching people engage at the airplay area, where volunteers, staff, and visitors worked together to make and explore simple paper helicopters.

    I also appreciated the many places where visitors could show off or store their creations for creative reuse or inspiration by others. Betsy explained that one of Explora’s design goals is to make exhibits “transactional” – open to visitors’ improvements and additions, never requiring a hard reset.

    While the exhibits were lovely, it was the overall feel of Explora that impressed me most. The atmosphere of Explora is highly designed and distinct from other science centers. There are large fabric sheets stretched above the first floor, providing visual breaks and absorbing some of the excited sound from below. There are plants everywhere. Why doesn’t every museum have plants everywhere? There were also beautiful art/science posters on most walls around the science center. There are the kinds of posters I’m used to seeing in staff areas of science museums—not so much on the museum floor. All of these small touches, as well as a gorgeous central laminar flow fountain, made me feel relaxed and kept me from getting overstimulated. I left after two hours energized and not at all frazzled by the experience.

    This review is, of course, not entirely from a “visitor’s eye.” I was welcomed and toured by staff members for half of my time at Explora. I spent only a small amount of that time with Paul Tatter, Explora’s founder. While I was wandering on the second floor, he pointed out to me his favorite spot from which he likes to observe families interacting on the floor below. We stood there for a long minute, not talking, watching groups break up and reform, kids deep in solo experimentation, people helping each other play. It was the kind of moment that seemed more possible at Explora than at other science centers. It was the kind of place you could get your arms around, have the space to think about what’s happening and the energy and calm to make it happen.

Latest Comments (9)

The "A List"

by Paul Orselli - April 01, 2010


Thanks for your thoughtful review of ¬°Explora! and congratulations to all the staff and volunteers there.

¬°Explora! is part of my “A List” of museum cities (Acton, Ann Arbor, Albuquerque) which offer interesting, slightly home-spun spaces that serve as an antidote to many of the overblown “palaces of mediocrity” that ostensibly serve as the current “exemplars” of the science center model.


by Eric Siegel - April 01, 2010

that seals it. i am so going there. thanks for the review.


Love Explora! Question about signage

by Jim Spadaccini - April 01, 2010

As New Mexico local and a parent, we are very familiar with Explora! and have a family membership. My kids love the place and we go to Explora! about once a month.

While we all love Explora! My wife and I have had discussion about the lack of signage. While I understand the presence of signage can impede the exploratory nature of some exhibits and it can adversely affect the aesthetic qualities that Nina noted, but I think perhaps this approach can be taken too far. In a few cases, we’ve tried now on multiple visits to figure out just what a few of the exhibits are all about!

On a recent trip my wife volunteered to go with my son’s elementary school class, she and the teacher asked an explainer about one of the exhibits. Unfortunately, the explainer didn’t know anything about it. They were simply trying to find the name of this exhibit, so they could learn more about it and perhaps do something similar in the classroom. When she returned home and described it to me, I was able to help them out, it was a zoetrope.

I wonder whether some simple, straightforward signage would help visitors (and perhaps the explainers themselves) make more sense some of the exhibits and perhaps allow them to extend some of the inspirational experiences they have had at Explora!

Re: Jim's comment on signage

by Nina Simon - April 02, 2010

Interesting point re: “learning more.” Perhaps it would make sense to have handouts associated with exhibits that provide more info, tucked in a drawer under the exhibit so visitors/staff/teachers could get that information if they want it.

It’s funny that you talk about the “name” of the exhibits—in my experience, the names visitors use for exhibits are almost always different (and more self-evident) than those assigned by professionals. Of course there are some things like zoetropes that have a searchable name outside museumland, but most exhibits are like precocious children with one-of-a-kind names. I definitely agree that it would be helpful for the explainers to know how to tell visitors more about the exhibits… but I’m not sure a name would always help!

Re: Jim's comment on signage

by Nina Simon - April 02, 2010


Interesting re: learning more. It might make sense for the exhibit designers/educators to write a handout for each exhibit that could be tucked in a drawer, available for visitors/teachers/staff who want it.

In my experience, referencing exhibits by “name” is rarely helpful. While some exhibits have names that have meaning outside museumland (like “zoetroe”), most are precocious children with bizarre one of a kind names. In my experience the names visitors assign to exhibits are very different from those given to them by designers. Explainers should definitely be able to help visitors find out more… but I don’t think a name would always do the trick!

Exhibit name and learning more

by Jim Spadaccini - April 02, 2010

I agree most exhibits don’t have searchable names and in fact my wife knew that this particular exhibit had a name, but couldn’t recall it. This was just one example. Another couple exhibits in the sound section we’ve found completely baffling. Not sure what we are supposed to do.

I understand, that “To do and notice” signage (found at the Exploratorium and elsewhere) might be considered, by some, an outdated concept, but with some of these exhibits it would have been helpful to have something like this. I’m sure other visitors have had similar issues (and they didn’t work at the Exploratorium like I did.)

I think having a vocabulary that let’s you communicate about science is important. “Zoetrope” “Persistence of Vision” knowing these words and concepts can lead to other discoveries.

The idea of guide tucked away somewhere or some other way of getting this information is interesting, but one needs to know to look for it. I think you could incorporate signage strategically, and thoughtfully, perhaps just for some of the exhibits where people have lot’s of questions.

Thanks again for the great review. I do think Explora! is a wonderful museum and we haven’t given up on the sound exhibits…yet.

far out edge of the bell curve

by Jason jay Stevens - April 04, 2010

Nice review of a unique place. ¬°Explora! is singularly committed to its mission and guiding principles, and it shows! Quite a case study on many levels.

Two Thumbs Up-

by Sam Dean - April 05, 2010

One of the top ten places to see in the country, from the staff, to the space, to their deep connection to the diverse community. It has its own feel that just fits, and makes it feel like a place where people want to come.

Exhibit Names

by Dave Stroud - April 06, 2010

I agree that the names guests use for exhibits are typically better and more insightful than the names given by the exhibit professionals developing them. We have been using our prototyping strategy to an advantage lately by listening to the people who play with our exhibits before the final version and using their language for the descriptions…

We are in fact changing the name of some exhibits we are renting this July and may even change them again based on whatever feedback we get.

I like to learn from our guests!

Dave Stroud

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