Part grandma's attic, part grandpa's garage, part science museum, part children's museum -- that's how Explora, a community treasure in Albuquerque, NM, bills itself. Last Saturday, the Noyce Foundation trustees took a field trip from our meeting in Santa Fe to find out why Explora won the 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Service.
Imagine a museum in the arid highlands of New Mexico where you enter to a large fountain that invites you to control the direction and shape of the playing water. From there you follow a maze of curved walls. At every turn, a private nook invites a family to sit together around a hands-on display and try building a dam, turning a gear, or puck a string and see the waves its shadow makes on the wall. Signs are in Spanish and English, but there aren't many signs: the exhibits, and the challenges they present, are self-explanatory.
The Explora research staff had a hunch that small private spaces would increase family interaction and focus on the exhibits. To test their hunch, they took down the walls for a while, tracked visitor behavior, and then put the walls back up. With the walls in place, just over head high, visitors spent more than twice as long at any single exhibit. Unlike the rest of us in a world that has become like a mall, these visitors weren't immediately distracted by something else --something maybe more exciting, let me go check it!-- to see.
The invitation to stop, pause, and play continues throughout the museum, through sections on water, mechanics, sound, electricity, and build-it-yourself Rube Goldberg machines. At one point we emerged into the Paradox Cafe, which is set up like a small cafeteria with stools along a bar and chairs around small round tables. Instead of coffee, the tables served up 3-dimensional puzzles, inviting us to build pyramids or pack shapes into boxes clearly too small to hold them. The person staffing the cafe wouldn't allow me to move on until I had solved the puzzle I sat down to.
Besides the friendly use of space, the second most noticeable feature of the museum was the complete lack of computer displays. Most science museums and an increasing number of art museums rely on computers to extend their exhibits, but Explora has only exhibits that can be personally handled in three dimensions. There is no waiting for directions from a screen: you pick up the materials and do with them what you like. Moreover, none of the shelves, closets, or storage spaces in the museum are locked. Anyone can pull out additional materials to work with, and this atmosphere of trust leads to respectful use by visitors.
Underlying everything Explora does is a coherent philosophy articulated by its founder, Paul Tatter. Paul believes that a museum should not be primarily about knowledge but rather about thinking. He is convinced that learning comes with use: we only learn something when we use it. Learning thrives in a non-threatening, open environment as one solves the problems one sets oneself. True learning can't be directed to specific outcomes. Museum staff give encouragement and occasional suggestions, but no answers.
Nor is Explora confined to one building. Staff and volunteers carry displays and activities all over the state. Eighty-three of 86 New Mexico school districts have benefited from Explora this year. Now student interns are preparing to build a temporary outdoor museum in the park again this summer, as they do every year. The visitors are as diverse as the community. Currently Explora is working with the local residents of a housing project to expand into an outdoor pavilion where they can hold festivals of learning and culture for the residents, including the inhabitants of elderly housing next door.
Explora is remarkable because it cleaves to a guiding philosophy and it has an expansive view of its community. It's a beautiful building, and I wanted to stay a few more hours. The next time I visit Albuquerque, I'm definitely going back, and so should you.