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Story 05: Memoirs of a Bubble Blower

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The Bubbles Exhibit

Written by Bernie Zubrowski

Five years after Tools, I helped develop another museum exhibit called Bubbles, which opened in 1985, to provide an opportunity for visitors to get acquainted with a phenomenon that they had probably already encountered but most likely had not fully explored. The original exhibit had six activity stations. Aside from the now ubiquitous activity of stretching a soap film vertically, visitors could blow small bubbles on a table with soap solution, make a large bubble dome using a piece of tubing from which air came out, dip wire frames into a container of soapy water, blow small bubbles in a narrow space between two sheets of Plexiglas, make a soap fill sheet that could be manipulated into different shapes, and make a string of small bubbles with a narrow diameter piece of tubing from which air escaped. (See videos of Bubbles exhibit on the Media page for these activities in action.)

These six stations were more than a collection of activities. Each activity provided opportunities for the visitor to explore the different properties of bubbles, but we hoped that the aggregate experience would be even more powerful. Visitors could see that soap film could be stretched surprisingly to a great length, that it formed various geometric shapes, and that these shapes would join together in a regular pattern. They could observe how soap film would pull itself together; that this tendency to shrink is an example of surface tension was not explicit. This is a difficult concept to grasp even for people who have science background.

The goal of this exhibit was not to illustrate scientific concepts but to draw attention to a fascinating phenomenon and to incite the visitors to go back to their homes and schools and explore bubbles on their own. Museums are viewed as respected educational institutions. The children's museum was recognized as a serious but engaging educational environment. When the museum displayed something—especially simple, often overlooked, everyday somethings like bubbles—it was like saying, "this is something worthwhile, something to pay attention to." Bubbles have a strong association of with play and frivolity, even joy. By installing an exhibit about bubbles the museum was saying that bubbles are also worthwhile "educationally."

But, the exhibit did more than just "display bubbles." How they were displayed was a big part of the message. Soap film had been exhibited previously in science centers. Usually, wire frames were dipped into a soap solution and then lifted out to show the way the film made interesting geometric intersections. However, in most science centers this activity happened behind a Plexiglas container. The visitor could not do anything directly with the device or with the bubbles. In The Children's Museum bubble exhibit, all the manipulations were done by the visitor. It provided immediate and direct access to the phenomenon and invited the visitor to actively explore.

But like the Tools exhibit, Bubbles had special challenges. Several of the activities required soap solution in open containers. In fact, on one of the tables the whole surface was covered with soap solution. Obviously, soap solutions are wet and can be messy. A special floor had to be put down so that the spilled soap solution would not be a major problem (visitors slipping, water leaking to floors below or floors simply rotting out from being constantly wet). John Spalvins of the museum's design and production department found a material that in general worked.

Supplementing the Bubbles exhibit activities were programs conducted by interpreters that could be done at times of day when it was not too busy. The interpreter had access to a kit of materials and a guide for how to use them in the exhibit. One of these activities involved blowing bubbles in a large container with dry ice in the bottom. When large bubbles—ten inches in diameter—blown by the interpreter or by a visitor, were launched, they would float a foot or so above the bottom of the container. The visitors could observe that even large bubbles were spherical and could observe the colors in the soap film. These simple add-on activities provided even more ways of understanding the properties of bubbles.

There are now bubble exhibits in many children's museums and science centers around the world, but they usually include only a few bubbles activities, if not just the big Stretch-the-Bubble activity. Multiple examples of the same phenomenon are missing in many of these exhibits leading me to wonder whether our original and broader pedagogical approach is ignored, misunderstood or undervalued. Over the years, since the museum's first version of the Bubbles exhibit, I have thought about the relevance of our pedagogy. In addition to its value in the exhibit, it was also relevant to the development of the science activities for the trade books and eventually in the middle school science curriculum that I designed at the end of my museum tenure in the early '90s.

Next: Exhibits about Phenomena and The Process of Discovery