Seeing the Light
of an Exhibition
by Tom Nielsen
Published on May 05, 2007
Museum: Exploratorium/NY Hall of Science
Visit Date: March, 1986
On a windy March afternoon 21 years ago, I was walking up Madison Avenue in Manhattan, looping in my mind the number 590, the way then-promising, now-obsolete “bubble memory” chips had to be constantly refreshed lest they lose their data. Odd, for someone whose short-term memory is so poor, that I still recall clearly so many details of that day.
As I approached 590 Madison, I noticed a group on the street corner. To get noticed in mid-town Manhattan requires rather extraordinary appearance or behavior. These people, all staring off at the building’s entrance, were vigorously shaking their heads back and forth – in denial, it seemed, of some awful accusation. But a moment later, I noticed a bright red light hanging above the lobby which was the focus of their attention. I had come to see an exhibition just installed at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art, called “Seeing the Light”. The work in the window, “Triple Aye Lightstick” by artist Bill Bell, was a teaser meant to draw in traffic. Stared at straight, it seemed a simple array of lights, with perhaps a slight shimmer. But in fact the lights were rapidly blinking on and off in precisely timed patterns, which could only be seen by scanning the eyes, painting pixels sequentially across the retina to form eerie persistent visions. To view “Triple Aye” properly, shake your head nay! That was the perverse lesson of the first science museum exhibit I ever encountered.
I had been hired a few months earlier to work as an exhibit technician at the then empty but soon to re-open New York Hall of Science – despite knowing nothing about the medium. I did have some skills in electronics and a proclivity for gadget building, but had never visited an interactive science center. I struggled at first to get some idea of exactly what these “interactive exhibits” I was helping to build might be. Then one day we were told that an exhibition from the Exploratorium was being installed for a three month run in the city, after which it would be brought to the HOS. In anticipation of this, I was urged to go take a look. What a wonderful stroke of luck!
Seeing the Light was not an ordinary exhibition – it was a vast, carefully assembled collection of exhibits chosen from among the best work done at the Exploratorium in the 17 years it had been open. With funding from IBM, the exhibits were re-packaged in sturdy, attractive housings to give a uniform look to the group. Although very different in appearance from the ad-hoc, opportunistic designs of the delightful originals back in San Francisco, the spiffy new exhibits looked great together and performed just as well. They were grouped in a number of topic areas – waves and resonance, shadows, color, vision – but I was impressed most with the eclectic nature of the enterprise. Just about anything, it seemed, if cleverly considered and artfully presented, could make a good interactive exhibit. A cardboard tube with a peephole on one end and a narrow slit on the other showed ephemeral swaths of reality when swept across a scene. It might have cost a dollar to build, though the stand it rested on was quite nice and looked expensive. Nearby, an Explainer dissecting a cow’s eye had gathered a small audience. Removing the lens, she held it up and told us to peer through it at tiny, perfectly focused, but upside-down! views of the world. Some displays used computers or lasers, but others were only posters hung on the wall showing illusions. (One of these, the intriguing “Paris in the the Spring,” illusion, was recalled to me last year by an elderly aunt from a visit 20 years ago, when I went out of my way to trick her with it. The simplest exhibits sometimes have the greatest impact.)
Besides this rich diversity, I was also struck by the knowledge, care and thought that had gone into each of these displays. Many pieces had been done by artists through the Exploratorium’s residency program. Of these, I recall a beautiful portrait of Frank Oppenheimer by Bob Miller, done by drilling holes of different sizes in an aluminum sheet. Other exhibits borrowed heavily from classic physics lab apparatus. In each case, however, it seemed that whoever had made it tried first to get deep inside of the experience, and then to present it to visitors from within that personal perspective. For example, two “Chladni Plates” were displayed, square and round steel sheets which are sprinkled with sand and bowed like a fidddle along the edge to reveal patterns of sound vibrations. This exhibit had been given the somewhat cryptic name “Bells”, an allusion probably missed by most visitors, but having powerful resonance for those who get it. It was accessible, but not condescending, to the extent such a balance is possible.
After three months, “Seeing the Light” was installed at the HOS on the mezzanine overlooking the main floor. We were still struggling to fill that main floor with new exhibits in time for the opening, but now we had examples to guide us, a measure, at least for me, of what it was possible to achieve in this quizzical medium. The exhibits on the mezzanine, for the two years I worked there, became my textbooks – a library of ideas and techniques, inspiration and insight.
Most of "Seeing the Light "is still displayed at the Hall of Science – some of the exhibits were removed, I believe, to make room for another classic exhibition, Mathamatica, which was installed a few years ago. It’s in pretty good shape, considering its age. Sadly, one of the “Bells” was broken the last time I visited, but I hope I am not alone believing an exhibition of this quality never goes out of style, and that the challenges of maintaining it will continue to be met. Many of the original exhibits also survive at the Exploratorium, curated and re-curated over the years in a variety of contexts and clusters. Recipes for many of these appear in The Exploratorium Cookbooks. I don’t think I’ve ever visited a science or children’s museum anywhere in the world which did not include at least one exhibit from Seeing the Light. But the impact this exhibition has had in our field is matched, I can say with gratitude, by the impact it has had in my own life.