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Story 04: Where Did the Ideas Come From?

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John and Bernie

Written by Janet Kamien

John and Bernie were another kettle of fish and it was here that one could see the basic assumptions we lived on at their most frayed.

Out of all of us, Bernie should have been the easiest developer to work with on an exhibit. A scientist, an artist, and a truly gifted teacher and observer who really knows kids, his head was always bursting with interesting ideas about how to create an experimental base for visitors, how to make phenomenon "real" and to notice the connections that could be made between art and science, the natural world and the made world. His favored materials were cheap and simple and his solutions often mechanical. He is the man that made blowing bubbles a staple of children's museums everywhere, and hardly the sort of "airy-fairy" developer that could drive pragmatic D&Pers to distraction.

John is literally an aerodynamic engineer. He can design and make anything—even an airplane! He could understand, in ways that many of the rest of us could not, the basis of the phenomena Bernie's work explored.

But, somehow these two could never really see eye-to-eye. Meetings were often grim affairs, edged with distrust. John seemed to feel that few of Bernie's ideas would actually work, even if they could be practically made. Bernie seemed to feel that John wasn't truly grasping his ideas. It would be easy to say that "they were too much alike" or that they were being competitive with each other in some cliché macho way. But neither of these would be the truth. I think now, looking back over all these years, that Bernie's disdain for exhibits as a medium was seen by John, an ace exhibit-maker, as profoundly insulting.

I understand Bernie's point of view. Exhibits are an imperfect medium. They do not honor the "present tense" of the user's access needs or interest. For Bernie, the perfect medium was the afterschool program in which simple materials could be informally introduced by Bernie himself to create immediate experiences for kids that could be manipulated in the moment to take a child's interest or new idea to another level. Exhibits can't do that. They are not "wise mentors." They do not notice a "teachable moment" and adjust themselves to take advantage of it. Their value lies elsewhere, in the land of beginnings.

On the other hand, we were doing exhibits. And we were doing them as well as could be expected within the limits of the form, our experience, and our space and budget considerations. We were pushing the form mechanically, emotionally, and pedagogically to yield sometimes surprising results. And John and his staff were the people who were making this possible.

Next: Through Thick and Thin, What Made It Work?