The world that surrounds us, that forms us and that we in turn shape, arrives as a complex, layered whole without disciplinary boundaries.
A tree, for instance, embedded in its environment, comes alive for us as we experience it through our senses and animate it through the insights, tools and methodologies of various disciplines. We understand an apple tree very differently when we experience it through drawing than through cooking or climbing or when we explore it through the various lenses of agriculture, ethnobotany, organic chemistry, ecology or literature.
At San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a hybrid between a laboratory and a museum, we think of both science and art as forms of inquiry. The term “art,” like “science,” means many things. The words simultaneously connote a culture of practice and the artifacts of that practice. While the term “art” evokes painting, dance and sculpture, “science” conjures notions of research findings, published papers and breakthroughs. Yet both art and science are, at heart, processes of investigation, using tools and methods for exploring and framing questions.
Founded by physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer in 1969, the Exploratorium has recently moved to a new location at Pier 15 on San Francisco’s downtown waterfront, where we have reopened with renewed conviction that art is vital to learning. Our new Center for Art and Inquiry is a research and development center for the arts within the larger learning laboratory of the Exploratorium. The Center oversees our trailblazing artist-in-residence program, hosts symposia and develops dynamic research projects in the arts. Some 40 projects – including large-scale immersive installations, site-specific interventions and classic exhibits developed by artists-in-residence collaborating with Exploratorium staff – will be on view throughout the new site.
Artists have shaped the approaches and learning culture of the Exploratorium from its founding and have inspired our view that a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding the world is essential to furthering insight. Art, for us, is an open-ended process of investigation, speculation, imagination and experimentation. The results of artistic inquiry can take infinite form, especially since every artist seems to reinvent art practice anew. The subject, question or issue engaged, as well as the final manifestation of a work propel artists down different paths. Take, for example, two current Exploratorium artists: Fujiko Nakaya’s artistic investigation necessitates her understanding of the complex conditions that produce fog, as she works with meteorologists, engineers and computer programmers; Jane Wolff, a landscape architect with a background in documentary filmmaking, explores the hybrid landscapes that emerge from interactions between natural processes and cultural intervention at the edge of the city and water. Her project Bay Lexicon reveals how language shapes our understanding and perception of place.
At the Exploratorium, scientists also borrow upon the methods of art to create arresting experiences for the public. For instance, Kristina Yu, the director of the Exploratorium’s Living Systems Department, is a biologist who values the way in which powerful aesthetic experiences intrigue and motivate learning. Yu worked with artist Michael Brown and reclaimed-wood specialist Evan Shively to develop the exhibit Douglas. A several-hundred-year-old Douglas fir was split down the center in order to reveal its rings and immerse visitors in a fascinating experience of dendrochronology. The wood of the tree forms the walls of a contemplative space. The tree’s enormous, lacy root structure inspires visitors to appreciate the complexity and sheer enormity of this grand, once-living organism.
Some of the most compelling contemporary ideas emerge at the interstices of fields and cultures. As a laboratory that develops learning experiences for the public, we form multidisciplinary teams that draw upon the methodologies of both art and science (and many other forms of expertise) to develop diverse offerings that inspire curiosity. At the Exploratorium, as in culture as a whole, collaboration is essential for approaching complex, layered subjects from multiple perspectives.
The Exploratorium believes that inquisitiveness underlies active participation in the world and that an inquiring public benefits society. We see our mission as helping others to rediscover their own curiosity; one doesn’t need to look far to find people who, whatever their walk of life or vocation, are animated by a happiness borne out of deep engagement with their surroundings, their communities, their skills and talents. All of us working in American education today (whether as parents, teachers, writers, museum professionals or policy makers) know that learning needs to be varied in texture to resonate and take hold deeply. Both art and science as processes of inquiry are essential aspects of this.