EXPLORATORIUM (1974, dir. Jon Boorstin)

Sound comes first: we hear the squeaks, whirrs, clicks of a machine that creates wave patterns onto paper that’s attached to a cylinder. Then we hear a handful voices say the title of the film, which is also the name of its subject The Exploratorium, the interactive science museum founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

Accompanied by an eerie electronic music cue, light comes next. After a partial establishing shot that pans over the structure of the museum’s ceiling, a shaft of sunlight bounces off a mirror on the roof and shines through a window. Then, it strikes another mirror and travels through a set of installed prisms. Refracted, and flaring through the camera lens, the light is projected onto an opaque wall and creates psychedelic streams of colors that could be in the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A man in silhouette (presumably Oppenheimer) goes up to and touches the colorful light. This is a demonstration of Bob Miller’s Exploratorium art piece “Sun Painting” (that doubles as a summation of motion picture experience.)

Then, in quick succession, children create shadows in a room equipped with a flashbulb and walls made out of a photosensitive material. A woman and child dance in a strobe light that chops up the visible continuity of their motion. A rotating swirl graphic is shown in close-up and we hear a man and woman talk about how staring at it is trippy. Two boys horse around in a force-perspective room that makes them look further apart than they really are.

These vignettes, as well as others that follow, represent various exhibits at The Exploratorium, or at least their effects, in a paradoxical way. On one hand, these are observational snapshots that show different aspects of the museum. On the other hand, they are documentations of exhibits that create, invoke, simulate physical phenomena that make you examine the very nature of how you see and hear the world a la’ white light going into a clear prism to create color.

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Frank's Unique View of the World
Frank Oppenheimer. (Source: Exploratorium.edu)

As a part of The Manhattan Project in the 1940s and under the leadership of his more famous older brother J. Robert, Frank Oppenheimer helped to create the atom bomb. In the 1950s, he became a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee due to a passing association with the American Communist Party in the 1930s and was blacklisted from teaching at the University level. He retreated to Colorado to become a rancher and found his way back to physics by becoming a high school science teacher, which inspired him to create an educational science museum.

Oppenheimer was remarkable for his unerring optimism and lack of disillusionment. He, like many of his Manhattan Project cohorts, had profound doubts regarding the invention of nuclear arms and advocated, unsuccessfully, for their multinational control. Then he was nearly professionally ruined during the Red Scare. Nevertheless, he believed in education’s power to improve society and his teaching philosophy– which guided and allowed people to discover and understand science through their own volition—intrinsically trusted the capabilities of individuals.

Hence, The Exploratorium was designed as a series of interactive, semi-controlled, easy-to-understand and loosely organized science experiments that weren’t presented in any mandatory fashion and enabled people to discover determined principles through their own free will. In her book Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium, K.C. Cole writes, “Frank’s woods of natural phenomena would serve as a substitute—not actually teaching so much as providing a means to rewire the brain’s neural circuitry in a way that would come in handy when similar phenomena were encountered in books or on exams or in the everyday world. It would be a place where people could build their own person repertoires of images and experiences.”

Oppenheimer with writer K.C. Cole. (Source: Slate.com)
Oppenheimer with writer K.C. Cole. (Source: Slate.com)

Cole also writes, “…[The thematic thread of the museum is] a focus on perception. Since everything we know is filtered through our perceptual apparatus, all of science hinges on it one way or the other, and the subject offers a naturally interdisciplinary way of getting into almost any subject… Further, perception was an active field of science in which even fresh discoveries could be made accessible. No one entirely understands how our brains take bits of inadequate and ambiguous information and use them to compose what we take to be the real world.” [157]

By the nature of its subject—a site of spontaneous experimentation that mainly demonstrates the scientific yet abstract nature of perception—the short doubles as an experimental film of the synesthetic kind. Likewise, just as the Exploratorium is a free form museum, the film is a non-linear series of impressions that lack any traditional expository devices (i.e. voice-over narration or titles that explain everything what you’re viewing.) Beautifully photographed by Eric Saarinen and featuring excellent sound work from Peter Smokler, Peter Pilafian, Bud Grenzbach and John Wilkinson, it’s a documentary and an art film. Oppenheimer must have appreciated that Jon Boorstin’s short film isn’t prosaically “scientific” as he intended his museum to also be a place where art and science converged (i.e. Miller’s “Sun Painting”.)

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More so, this short-film resonates with me as I have a personal connection to the museum. Having grown-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my parents, siblings and I often visited The Exploratorium and watching Boorstin’s film evokes many memories. For instance: I can remember being a five-year old, walking down the museum’s mezzanine stairwell, stopping to see my mom ahead of me at the base of the stairs, and being aware that I was forming a memory in that moment. Not the most exciting recollection, I admit. Nonetheless, it was an early moment of cognizance that’s etched into my mind.

This experience seems to dovetail with Oppenheimer reasoning behind the Exploratorium, as Cole writes: “[it would provide] a means to rewire the brain’s neural circuitry in a way that would come in handy when similar phenomena were encountered in books or on exams or in the everyday world. It would be a place where people could build their own person repertoires of images and experiences [149]…”

Museum floor in 2006
The old Exploratorium. (Source: Wikipedia.)

With many of its original exhibits intact, the museum moved from the Palace of Fine Arts to San Francisco’s Pier 15 in 2013. Even so, the Exploratorium as I knew it and as it’s portrayed in this film doesn’t really exist anymore. Yet thankfully, due to a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the Academy Film Archive has preserved Exploratorium and by extension the previous version of The Exploratorium. (Film and video preservation: the endeavor that maintains the time-machine a.k.a. moving image media.)

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So if Exploratorium could be seen as much a de facto experimental film as it is a documentary, and if the Exploratorium is Oppenheimer’s scientific playground that causes learning and curiosity through inadvertent means, then Boorstin’s short reminds me of what people often fail to see or acknowledge in the experimental (for lack of a better term) genre. Yes, the most accomplished or noted experimental films (and videos, for that matter) typically have strong aesthetic and theoretical underpinnings that often address or are influenced by cultural, economic, political and historical issues. And, yes, it’s not uncommon when they are visually and aurally unpleasant or abrasive.

Still from Dziga Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" (Source: silentlondon.co.uk)
Still from Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (Source: silentlondon.co.uk)

Still, experimental films and videos can be adventurous, subversive, enigmatic and yes-I’ll-say-it fun. They can disclose the moving image medium’s latent possibilities, similar to how science can reveal the invisible mechanics of nature and the universe. If you’ve seen them, consider Man with a Movie Camera, Un Chien Andalou, Meshes in the Afternoon, Bruce Conner’s A Movie, Scorpio Rising, Mothlight, La Jetee, Michael Snow’s Wavelength—these are all films that have the potential to open up the viewer’s mind and make them understand what cinema can do and how it can express different modes of perception. They demonstrate the power of play, just like Jon Boorstin’s short film, and just like the Exploratorium.

One thought on “EXPLORATORIUM (1974, dir. Jon Boorstin)

  1. Glad you responded to Exploratorium the film. FYI it was nominated for an oscar for best documentary short, and just recently restored by the Academy, with a new negative and a new 4k transfer. The museum runs the film at their new location to remind the visitors (and the staff) of their legacy.

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