Have you ever visited a science or discovery museum and thought “how do they make this happen?” or “how amazing it must be to create an exhibit!”  Dr. Kristina Yu, the Director of the Living Systems Department at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, answered both of these questions during a recent visit with the scientists at the Buck Institute. By the end of Dr. Yu’s insightful and humorous talk, it was apparent that developing an exhibit is a complicated and slow process, sometimes taking years to go from a concept to hands-on activity, and that exhibit development is much more than “fun and games.”  To truly excel as a museum science director, it is a “labor of love” not a “labor of like” job.

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Dr. Kristina Yu working her magic at the microscope. Image credit the Exploratorium.

Dr. Yu began her journey as a PhD student at University of California, Santa Cruz, where she specialized in microscopy.  Although she enjoyed her project, which focused on fruit fly embryo development, she felt her PhD had been a labor of “like” and not a labor of “love”.  This feeling that there must be something better pushed her towards exploring the possibility of a career path outside of academia.  Fortuitously, she came across an advertisement looking for a microscopy expert at the Exploratorium.  The advertisement was for a project leader on how to make the beauty of microscopy accessible to the public.  One of the many challenges of this project was realizing that the public did not view the microscope in the same way as a scientist. At one point some of the children thought that the microscopes eyepieces greatly resembled handlebars, necessitating placing the actual microscope behind Plexiglass.  The exhibit allowed the public to view and photograph organisms and individual cells, it was a fabulous success, and due to additional funding Dr. Yu was able to continue her work beyond this special project.

Exploratorium Cell picture

A film still from a fantastic video capturing mouse embryonic stem cells. Image credit © The Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu. For full video.

One of the biggest misconceptions about museum exhibits is that they arrive on the museum floor fully formed and are instant successes.  Dr. Yu clarified that exhibits go through an extensive trial and error process.  The first “held together by duct-tape” prototype is often taken out onto the exhibit floor for public exposure and feedback.  The process is repeated multiple times and the public’s feedback is continuously incorporated at each step.  It can take up to three years before the final version of the exhibit becomes semi-permanent, and  not every exhibit is successful, as only about 1 in 4 ideas actually results in a final exhibit.  The creation of an exhibit requires an entire team of individuals working together, as many parts of the exhibit are fabricated from scratch.  As a little known fact, fabrication skills are often a highly desired skill in the museum field.  Many of the exhibits run for multiple years, and a few special ones become permanent fixtures (my personal favorite from childhood being the “shadow box  ”.  There are even a couple of exhibits designed by the Frank Oppenheimer, who founded the Exploratorium in 1969, that are still entertaining visitors.

For those wishing to pursue a career in museum curating, Dr. Yu offered some sage advice.  She emphasized that being very creative, working well in a team environment, and having one outstanding non-science skill would all be essential in landing a museum position.  Some examples of these non-science skills include material fabrication, graphical design, teaching experience, or writing expertise.  One skill that she said is essential, but unexpected, is the ability to write grants.  Many in the Buck audience mistakenly believed that museums had large funded budgets, not realizing that many of the new exhibits are actually funded through competitive government grants.  These revelations certainly changed the perspective many audience members held of what a curator and exhibit designer job actually entails.

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The Exploratorium entrance at Pier 15 in San Francisco. Image credit the Exploratorium.

Dr. Yu reminded her audience that the Exploratorium is no longer just a place for children, but that there are also several activities focuses towards adults and teachers.  For adults, there is a weekly “After Dark” Thursday which is an exciting night of science designed to discuss such tantalizing topics as “sex in the animal kingdom” or “chocolate”.  Many in the audience were already planning a future visit after hearing about future “After Dark” topics.  For those who teach science in the classroom, the Exploratorium hosts teacher workshops designed to encourage inquiry-based teaching. As another resource for teachers, the Exploratorium also maintains an extensive online science image library.  The Exploratorium is successfully pushing the boundaries of what a museum can offer and reaching the broadest audience possible in which to share in the amazing experience of science.