Making connections

Making connections

So I may have referred to my problems with the SF transport system. I put this down to being new, however this morning I was to be stumped yet again by the mysterious lack of Trolley car E. So the instructions that had looked so easy turned into lies and I ended up walking all the way. It wasn’t a bad walk, or it wouldn’t have been without the detours to each station to try and discover whether this was the mythical stop for the imaginary trolley. And half way through the temperture went from autumn chilly to roasting hot. So I think it’s fair to say that I arrived at the Exploratorium more than a little grumpy. Perhaps I can only take 2.5 weeks of being lost before I lose my cool? Perhaps I yearn for the luxury of knowing where the heck I’m going?

Anyway, end of rant. Because then a lovely person welcomed me and signed me in. And I had time to admire the way that they reinforce their values and mission all the way through the welcome and ticketing experience before Josh who heads up their research team, came down to meet me. I then got a whistle stop tour to give me some idea of the landscape before retiring to chat serious impact. I met Josh at the conference in Boston but we didn’t have a lot of time to talk, now it became clear that he is a really deep, analytical thinker. We quickly ran out of time so I had time to go and explore the place (as instructed) before we regrouped.


I saw the magnificent Strandbeests, which was amazing – I highly recommend it to anyone more local or with the ability to suddenly fly to SF. I got chatting to a local lady who had never found a reason to visit before, but came specifically for this. We bonded over how hard it was to get around the city! I was able to recommend their Thursday night lates – I’ll take my commission later. It’s interesting that this exhibition is being presented in the normal exhibition space, bar clearing the area of exhibits (goodness knows where they are stacked up) all they have done is added some drapes. Then the displays, both static and interactive, the creatures themselves and the show areas just use some rope barriers to indicate what you can touch and what you can’t.


There are an enormous number of exhibits still left on display. I was racing round at top speed and had I been with someone else then I would have covered far less. Key things that really interested me were the behavior of visitors. I have been used to huge, unruly groups of camp kids. Not here. It was busy, but small groups or couples were moving around chatting, laughing, pointing out things to their group, but no one was running, screaming or showing the signs of overstimulation. 

When I regrouped with Josh we walked a few circuits of the building and discussed the behavior differences. Perhaps a sign of great content, perhaps the calming influence of the Bay as seen through the windows? We discussed the Biology area as this was one of my favorites, it focused on the tiny life and the life found in the Bay. It was relevant. Later I fished a plate out of the sea to see what had colonized it – that felt strangely empowering. Upstairs is a gallery devoted to the environment, again particularly the Bay. You can see who lives where, by age, by numbers or by race and make your own conclusions. This is where I needed a companion to share my questions and thoughts with! Then we sat in rocking chairs and discussed values, how curiosity or inquiry or the ability to ask questions creates a healthy population, able to see through spin and pseudoscience and make good decisions in a democracy. And whether an institution should make it’s more political values overt.


I had time to then pop into the Tinkering Studio, check out the new Science of Sharing exhibits and generally fly around trying to fill my phone with photos. Had another happy encounter with a fellow visitor in a dark booth as we were trying to understand if we were seeing the glowing bacteria or not. She and I ended up in fits of giggles about the absurdity of two strangers in a small box peering at a wall – could it be another psychology exhibit? 

So I left in a much better mood than I had arrived – and what institution wouldn’t want that! I then explored the piers and Fishermans Wharf – I don’t want to offend any SF’cans but it is quite similar to Weston-Super-Mare in many ways. Once my feet started complaining it was time to head back. But of course the imaginary unicorn beast that is Trolley E wasn’t running so a lovely trolley driver told me how to get back and waved me away when I tried to pay. Then he did something quite brilliant. Each person looking for that bloody missing trolley was told to get on and follow me, he made us into a group with a shared mission. Anyone who has read Nina Simon’s account of her volleyball instructor will realise that he just scaffolded a shared social experience. And it worked. We set off as a large group, following the instructions that I had, then using the knowledge of the group. Even asking for help from official looking people. And so I got chatting to a high school graduate who wanted to hear all about Europe and my travels. We even shared a coffee and I bored her with some photos while waiting for the train once we successfully arrived. 

So thank you Exploratorium, thank you trolley driver – you made my day great.

Sweet serendipity

Sweet serendipity

So here I am over in California, feeling a long way from home and the friends, old and new, on the East coast. I’m even in a different time zone again and able to have an early morning chat with the family while I enjoy the last of the evening. Crazy stuff.

So as I look out over the twinkling lights and 32 planes circling, I can reflect back upon this weekend. 


Friday I met quite a force at the American Museum of Natural History. Kate leads youth initiatives and she clearly has the passion for it. It was amazing to hear her list all the things they had tried to inspire young people of all backgrounds to try some research, and to keep them engaged as they grew up. It was even more amazing when she explained how those young people who remained engaged could then go on to help the Museum with certain problems – such as the massive influx of summer camps. Who better to help a camp group negotiate a huge museum then someone closer to their age, who knows the place like the back of their hand, has grown in confidence through participation in the youth programmes and can be an ambassador for those programmes and help others find a way in.

And I was able to say hi to a group preparing some presentations on climate change. And their slides showed how much they had learned through working with an actual researcher and having time to do their own research. I made the mistake of assuming these initiatives were all related to the schools programme, but they are not. Although they do use teachers as gateways to the students. And Kate is keen to keep working at reaching students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may not have the confidence in their ability or may not see the relevance; those that don’t apply or don’t turn up or don’t finish. Because we can’t always rely on those flashbulb moments, when our audiences suddenly realise what the content is all about and make a decision to pursue it. Yes, they are great when they happen, but as a sector we are getting older and wiser so we must be able to design experiences that scaffold those moments. And I guess that lies behind my core question – what have we learned about experiences and audiences that can lead to life changing moments? Kate described a series of small steps leading inexorably to full engagement with the museum and the science; their mission is ambitious, they want to cultivate the next generation of researchers.


And then I had some luck myself. I had a lovely taxi driver take me to the airport (my first Uber experience). We started off chatting about tennis as he was a massive fan, but then I was able to steer him onto my favourite subject – engagement with science. And he said, very simply “There are families who will never take their kids to a museum, mostly poor and black. Those kids will never want to go to a museum, no matter what.” He was a black New Yorker. That gave me a lot to ponder as I went through the many lines of security at the airport.

Then I sat next to two New Yorkers making new lives in SF on the plane. We only got chatting towards the end of the flight which was a total shame as we had so much to talk about. One lady was working towards diversity in a west coast tech firm and we swapped stories about how much we loved the Brooklyn Museum and who inspired us. I was able to promote Nina Simon’s new book Relevance which is a must read. And I came away thinking, Mr Taxi driver I agree, those kids are never going to visit museums and science centres in their current form. But we can change and become places where they can access culture relevant to them. We can’t rely on serendipitous moments, we can’t even rely on amazing passionate individuals like Kate and Plane Lady – we have to build it into our missions and our every day practice. We will change lives – for the better.
And for a PS I can tell you that SF bizarrely feels tougher to negotiate than New York and I’ve come across hills. No ordinary hills, but massive great big calf twanging, butt aching hills. This is making me long for a car. However there is also great Zinfandel which takes the edge of the pain. And I can look at my Health Data and feel proud, as I pant, sweat and try not to vomit.

I have also found the bridge, sort of. I assumed that it would be the easiest thing in the world to see, but turns out there are very specific viewing points. And the general fog thing they have here (I will be looking that one up) makes it tough to make out.


And in the game that is public transport bingo, this weekend I have been on a plane, a train, a double decker train (so exciting!!!), a light rail, a subway, a bus and a trolley. Didn’t try the rickshaws or boats so short of a full house.

Oh and I would like to recommend Bedford Cheese Shop in Williamsburg, NYC. They have nailed customer service and brilliant interpretation in what is essentially a very dynamic museum of cheese. Haven’t had that much fun since Cheddar.