Looking at the Light

Topic: Physical Sciences Subtopic: Light & Optics

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Wendy Pollock

Published on May 09, 2007, Modified on May 17, 2010

  • Description and goals

    Looking at the Light was a traveling exhibition with a big mission: to demonstrate the power of hands-on exhibits and (as we said in the final report) “to facilitate sharing of the Exploratorium’s expertise and vision.” At the time the project was initiated (the NSF proposal was submitted in May 1980), science centers were few in number, and almost no traveling exhibitions about science were available anywhere. (ASTC had some, but most were static artwork.)

  • Development process and challenges

    The early Exploratorium was committed to the idea of the “working prototype.” With the workshop located right inside the door and an ongoing commitment to curiosity and change, the organization wasn’t thinking about dressing up exhibits in laminate and putting them on the road. Sheila Grinell, then head of ASTC’s Traveling Exhibition Service and collaborator in the founding of the Exploratorium, persuaded Frank Oppenheimer and others there to consider the possibility.

    The result was a collection of 17 exhibits about mirrors, images, and shadows, which went on the road in late 1981 and traveled for four years before it was sold in 1985 to Science Place in Dallas.

    Every site along the way was visited for two days by an Exploratorium staff person, who talked with both exhibits and education staff (and also at times with board members and the press) about the concepts underlying each exhibit, mechanical aspects of exhibit design, and the Exploratorium’s philosophy.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    The impact of this traveling exhibition was profound. We tallied 600,000 visits over the course of a tour to 15 cities—by today’s standards, not a high number. But not only were visitors reportedly “engrossed,” “joyful,” and “highly involved”; the museums themselves were inspired to undertake new projects and build their own versions of these exhibits. For some, like the Buhl Planetarium, the experience helped build support for transformation to a new kind of institution.

    As was the norm for that period, no formal evaluation was done. But as more than one museum reported, the site visit by Exploratorium staff was “the KEY in making this exhibit effective.” For me, Looking at the Light demonstrated the power of human connections and a good idea, experienced firsthand.

  • Exhibition Opened: November 1981

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: San Francisco, None, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $100,000 to $500,000 (US)

  • Size: 1000 to 3,000

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. 4018578000

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