Note: This post was also published as a review on ExhibitFiles here.
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 Adamson, 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. 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. There's also a large element of trust in visitors. Material cabinets and craft storage areas are open to visitors, whether staffed or not.
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.