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Behind the scenes at the Science Museum

As regular readers know, I have a great interest in seeing the behind-the-scenes of museums.

Behind the scenes at the Science Museum
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Behind the scenes at the Science Museum

As regular readers know, I have a great interest in seeing the behind-the-scenes of museums. I know this is a bit puzzling to the people who actually work behind the scenes, as the front of the house is set up to be looked at, and the backstage is generally set up like a storage closet. The walls are often unpainted, or painted a neutral color, or are just a slab of concrete. There are often desks, often cluttered. There are computer-printed notes taped to the walls, sometimes in comic sans, or, if it is an art gallery, in Futura, reminding people to switch off the lights. It’s not really meant for public consumption, and my interest in these areas is a bit puzzling to the folks who inhabit them. It’s as though they came to my apartment, ignored my art collection, and spent their time staring at the area under the sink.

I saw an example of this online recently. On the architecture website The Funambulist, Latvian artist Viktor Timofeev decided to poke around the old video game Doom and take some screenshots, then report back about the game’s unworldly design, taking particular interest in where the design broke down due to limitations in the software. On the webforum MetaFilter, one commenter was bewildered by this: “I’m also surprised (not for the first time) how fascinated some players are with the most mundane things. It’s like ooh-ing and ahhing over how one of the nails holding together a cabinet has a burr on it from the manufacturing process, while some of the other nails don’t. The carpenter doesn’t care, because it’s a nail.

“People will spend hours trying to break through the walls and discover the nothingness on the other side, as if it’s magic, but from the designer perspective, when you’ve spent months trying to get the damn game to stop doing that all the time whether you want it to or not, it’s as magical as a sewer :)”

Well, count me in as a fan of sewer magic, because that’s always what I look for. Part of it is, of course, the thrill of the forbidden. You’re getting to go where the public isn’t supposed to, and it’s obvious, because it has not been designed for public consumption. But part of it is that I always like having a magic trick revealed. Professional magicians never like to give up their secrets, and I’ve known more than a few. “Oh, it will ruin it,” they complain. It doesn’t ruin it for me — it makes it more magic. Before I knew how the trick worked, I was just a shlub who could be fooled. Now I’m an insider.

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And so it is that the people at the Science Museum in downtown St. Paul invited me and my girlfriend, Coco, on a behind-the-scenes tour. They were quite eager to do so, as deep in the bowels of their behemoth building is an enormous workplace where they build exhibitions. Not only have they built every single exhibit on display at their own museum, but they create exhibitions for other museums. They’re very proud of this fact, but it is little-known. And so it was that the museum’s Senior Vice President of Science and Learning, Paul Martin, walked us around the museum yesterday, and then took us backstage.

Like most Minnesotans my age, I grew up going to the Science Museum, and it is probably as responsible as anything for my lifelong side interest in science. I’m sort of a mirror image of my parents, who were in the sciences, but had and have an avocational passion for the arts. I am in the arts, but have a grand avocational interest in science. Coco shares it as well, particularly on the subject of space. We visited the Hayden Planetarium in New York about six months back, and she arranged to interview its director, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who also hosts “NOVA ScienceNOW.” While we were there, we met astronaut Mike Massamino, whom she follows on Twitter and who has been up in the Space Shuttle twice. Afterwards, Coco just burst into tears from the excitement of it all.

What I have always liked about the Science Museum is its ability to break science down into simple concepts, and then create displays that dramatize the concepts. They have an exhibit just now that teaches children about scalability — an important concept, but not one that’s easily explained. The displays they have out just now are prototypes, of a sort — one is literally made with a light bulb, electrical tape, and some cut pieces of wood. And yet it’s quite clever. You place a human-shaped cutout in front of the light, casting a silhouette on a wall. And then you stand next to the cutout, or in front of it, or behind it, and watch your own shadow grow and shrink next to it. It’s dead simple, but there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t see somebody — children and adults alike — playing with it.

Coco in the Science Museum's exhibition shop
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Coco in the Science Museum’s exhibition shop

The shop where these things are made looks the way you would expect a shop to look. There are all sorts of work areas with various future exhibits in various stages of completion, and as we wandered around, Paul Martin explained that exhibits at the science museum are created with what he called an “iterative” process — they’ll come up with an early draft, put it out on the floor, see how people respond to it, and then bring it back into the shop to tinker with it more, or make a new version. He introduced us to a fellow named Mark, who was working on an exhibit that demonstrated how adding CO₂ to a water supply increases the acidity of the water. It was a simple-looking device in front, in which a button adds carbon dioxide to a little container of H₂O, and you can then see a meter gauging acidity as it rises. The display’s innards were awesomely complex, though, and Mark told of an earlier version that had been on the floor, and he had watched a little girl walk over to it, look at the front for a moment, and then, rather than push a button, had reached around and turned the lever that controlled the flow of water, cutting it off. Apparently that’s how it is with children. They will always find something to do with an exhibit that is unexpected, which includes, sometimes, turning it off.

Martin also showed us around the museum’s labs, which look exactly the way you expect them to, filled with specimen tables and examples of flora and fauna and fossils, the back walls lined with bookshelves filled with musty old science books. You expect to discover Claudia and her brother Jamie from the book “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” hiding in sleeping bags under the benches. Or, if you’re a moodier sort, Jesse Eisenberg from “The Squid and the Whale” having a nervous breakdown somewhere.

And then we looked at the museum’s permanent collection, which is kept in a vast, climate-controlled room filled with enormous shelving units that are on rails, so that they all sort of fit snugly against each other, and when you want access to one you roll the others away from it, creating a temporary aisle. This is filled with over a million items, including collections of Native American artifacts, some physically large, some impressive in quantity (the entire back wall is covered with spears and bows and arrows). There are dinosaur bones here. There are stones and gems and meteorites. There’s even an enormous collection of seeds, collected by a Midwestern dentist from the Dakotas and Nebraska and, perhaps, elsewhere, many labeled with the Native American tribes that used them, some seeds looking unexpectedly alien. There was, for example, pod corn, in which every single kernel of corn has its own husk, making the corn look, well, furry. It seems like it would be tremendously annoying if you were to want to cook and eat it, and perhaps that’s the point. Martin informed us that some of the seeds had been sent up to the International Space Station, where they were germinated; this news made Coco look as though she was going to cry again.

And that was the end of the tour. Afterwards, Coco and I got a bit distracted and took a series of photos of ourselves screaming in terror and fleeing dinosaur skeletons, because, like children, we cannot be counted on to use museum exhibits as they are intended.