Story 05: Memoirs of a Bubble Blower

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Sidebar: Creative Differences: Two Perspectives

Written by John Spalvins & Elaine Heumann Gurian

I'm sure we both had the same objectives in mind: to teach people about science. But Bernie went at it from the teacher's standpoint, and I went at it from the technical, designer, engineering standpoint. Bernie's concepts were always tried out with very simple pieces of materials: milk cartons and straws and you name it. But his work involved direct interactions with the public. He did demonstrations, went to schools—he tried these things out. And consequently he got the idea that, well, this is the direction we want to go, and these are the materials we want to use. He didn't quite understand that what you use with a school group or with a limited number of people while you're standing there directing them in an activity is not how things work on the museum floor where 400,000 people a year are interacting with an exhibit. I kept trying to convince Bernie—and this is where the brokers came in—that "I can't use your milk carton, Bernie. It's not going to hold up." And a lot of times he just kept saying, "Well, why can't you use the milk carton? Make the milk carton stronger or something." Fortunately, virtually all the time we were able to work it out.

We finally reached a compromise where we'd use heavier-duty materials in the exhibit, then we would place lighter materials—the paper cups, the straws, the milk cartons—in a display case arranged as demonstration pieces with graphics saying, "See what we've got here with the water wheel? Well, you can go home and take a milk carton, cut it up like this, take two paper plates, and this is what it should look like." So that was kind of a compromise. I'm not sure if Bernie was entirely satisfied with that, but we went in that direction.

The one exception, of course, was the Tops exhibit where handheld, homestyle mixers would activate the top to get it to spin. Try as I might—we even rigged up a couple of what we thought were foolproof mechanisms where you just dropped a lid and it would spin—they didn't look at all like a homemade mixer. So we used real mixers, but I don't know how many hundreds of them we bought over the time that the exhibit was running. Because it was a traveling exhibit, too, we had to keep dozens of spares that we kept sending out. Because a real mixer would only last for a couple of weeks. But, yeah, we went with the real mixer.

Essentially that was our relationship. It was never adversarial. We were both working for the same goal. We did seven traveling exhibits, and they were all hits. Everybody liked them. And they traveled way beyond their life expectancy. If fact, if you look at the Raceways exhibit at the museum now, after all these years, it is just a slightly modified version of the original traveling exhibit. A lot of the traveling components were actually in that exhibit. You know, they last. They were quite successful.

John Spalvins

Bernie worked for Pat Steuert primarily on afterschool projects, so I had very little to do with him for many years—until he wanted to do exhibitions. He worked with Anne Butterfield and me on writing a National Science Foundation (NSF) proposal, which was rejected—repeatedly—for reasons I cannot remember. We were frustrated but it became a matter of honor to keep resubmitting. We eventually wrote the proposal to produce a series of traveling exhibitions and NSF finally agreed.

In his science programs, Bernie used easy-to-obtain materials. This approach was rooted in his deeply held beliefs about access to science learning. We all understood that, and because the museum also featured RECYCLE, which I had started, his philosophy was institutionally ingrained.

Bernie and his work were fabled. He was a "developer's developer." But he wasn't very interested in (or good at) the minimal bureaucracy required to run the institution, including compliance with any "mickey mouse" conformity required of him. Pat was more used to his maverick attitude than I was, but basically we all loved Bernie: he was sweet, stubborn, never mean and always principled.

Since Bernie believed that kids could do science with simple materials anywhere, he was less interested in the exhibition format. But the basic problem was that exhibitions cannot be made out of the easy-to-obtain stuff Bernie used. Exhibition materials needed to stand up to the rigors of heavy use. Exhibit designer John Spalvins, stubborn as Bernie although perhaps more voluble about it, was every bit as inventive at his craft. John already worked with the rest of the developers, all frustrating in their own ways, and he had his own set of idiosyncrasies. While John and Bernie were often at odds, each maintained a high level of creativity. The final exhibitions were very much a collaboration: neither could have done it without the other. They were both extremely gifted.

Bernie's exhibitions, fabricated by John, became deeply beloved and much copied and although much of the recycle nature of the materials was lost, the discovery nature of the science remained. Bernie partnered with John every inch of the way, selecting and tweaking workable materials. They fussed for exactitude, driving each other crazy while deeply respecting each other's skills. Their clash wasn't any sharper than the one Jeri Robinson had in making Playspace or Sylvia Sawin in making Grandmother's Attic. In all of these developer/designer relationships, each person started at different sides of the equation, stuck to their guns, got closer and closer, and built masterpieces.

The process was tedious and exasperating, involving endless private meetings with the aggrieved. Brokers Janet Kamien and Dottie Merrill were good at getting folks to work together; managers Pat and I were equally good at championing "our" staff. But no one was ever threatening or mean, and in the end, they were all proud of themselves and each other. We were all devoted to the museum, the mission, and each other.

Elaine Heumann Gurian

Next: Sidebar: The Intersection of Art and Science