"Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens": Frank Oppenheimer and the birth of the modern science museum


"the whole point of the Exploratorium is for people to feel they have the capacity to understand things." --Frank Oppenheimer

I admit it: I'd never heard of Frank Oppenheimer until I received my review copy of K.C. Cole's Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up. I thought for a day or two that it was a book about Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called "Father of the Atomic Bomb," and was thus completely befuddled by the book's cheery title and its cover - a fanciful cloud of iridescent bubbles.

Of course, I was off by a sibling. Frank Oppenheimer was actually Robert's younger brother. Like Robert, Frank was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. Like Robert, he was frustrated by the direction of American nuclear policy after the war. Like Robert, his associations with left-wing politics resulted in painful ostracism during the McCarthy era. But unlike his older brother, who died of cancer in 1967, Frank had a playfully redemptive, upbeat third act to his life - he created San Francisco's Exploratorium, the prototypical interactive science museum.

The Exploratorium must be one of the best-kept secrets in the country, because since moving to the East Coast, I've encountered hardly anyone who's heard of it. To say it's a science museum is a terrible understatement. It's more like Santa's workshop, if Santa were a retired physics professor. The Exploratorium is prettier and slicker today than when it first opened in 1969, but it's still fundamentally a collection of homemade, primitive gadgets that illustrate various scientific principles and invite visitors to mess around. Believing that urban and suburban communities "had become information rich but experience poor," Frank Oppenheimer wanted his museum to be "a woods of natural phenomena" in which visitors could wander freely, tinker, and develop intuitions about the world around them. He wanted people to leave the Exploratorium believing that they could, through observation and experimentation, figure anything out themselves. In one success story, an inspired visitor went home and fixed a plug on her lamp - despite there being no exhibits about wiring electronics in the museum. Scientific American editor Dennis Flanagan called the Exploratorium "the only true science museum." (For those not lucky enough to have visited, I'd recommend both this book, and Jon Else's 1982 documentary, Palace of Delights.)

There have been many attempts to bridge the gap between the experts and the laymen. The attempts have involved books, magazine articles, television programs and general science courses in schools. But such attempts, although valuable, are at a disadvantage because they lack props; they require apparatus which people can see and handle and which display phenomena which people can turn on and off and vary at will. -- Frank Oppenheimer, "Rationale for a Science Museum"

Today, in the Web 2.0 world, interactivity is expected, even demanded, in education. But in 1969, letting visitors play with, even break, the exhibits was heresy. Even enthusiastic supporters couldn't decide how to categorize (or justify funding for) the Exploratorium, a cavernous warehouse of gadgets with no rules, no guards, no teachers, and a crew of long-haired teenage "explainers". Was it a weird new kind of school or a weird new kind of museum? That it survived, that it thrived, winning international awards and inspiring the new generation of hands-on science museums we know today, is largely due to the vision of Frank Oppenheimer. First he made the bomb; then he made a playground.

Sightseeing, [Frank] liked to say, is the basis for all discovery. Marco Polo and Charles Darwin were both sightseers. "Individual sights combine to form patterns," he said, "which constitute a simple form of understanding."

K.C. Cole's book is, like the Exploratorium itself, a collection of vignettes that interact to generate a larger whole. She starts and ends with descriptions of the Exploratorium, from her own first visit as a young science writer, and from the memories of other visitors and employees. But the heart of the book is about Frank Oppenheimer, from his childhood through his death in 1985. Cole's description of his childhood, in particular, made me intensely jealous - he was indulged in all sorts of scientific and artistic enthusiasms by his wealthy parents and older brother. He climbed into rooftop water towers, ran his brother's twenty-foot sailboat aground, collected junk and rocks, and generally stripped and rebuilt everything mechanical within reach. Cole writes,

The more I found out about Frank's former life, the more clear it became that he wore his history on his sleeve not just in this, but in almost every respect: his kindness, his insatiable curiosity, his love of junk and art, his passionate distaste for dishonestly his bottomless appetite for everything the human and physical world had to offer - all were transparently tied to his previous experience. And the more I learned, the more it seemed as if everything he'd done had led inexorably (if somewhat erratically and eccentrically) to the Exploratorium.

If you are already familiar with the history of physics in the United States, this book won't tell you much you don't already know about the conflicted emotions of the Manhattan Project's physicists in the face of post-war nuclear politics. Cole doesn't delve into Oppenheimer's ill-fated association with the Communist Party (he was a member briefly, but seems to have found it frustratingly ineffectual at advocating for civil rights, so he later quit), and she doesn't go into the McCarthy hearings. Instead, she shares just enough history to convey the emotional and intellectual impact that his decade-long ostracism from academia had for Frank, who (as any scientist can imagine) desperately wanted to get back into the lab and work. He was caught in a punitive double bind: constantly harassed by the FBI, he couldn't find a research position in the United States, yet the government wouldn't let him leave the country.

Eventually Frank started teaching high school near his ranch, in tiny Pagosa Springs, Colorado. He created the first physics course the local school ever had - after he resolved a little snag about teaching credentials (the state made him take correspondence courses to get a teaching certificate, since the nuclear physicist and former professor didn't have any undergraduate credits in education.) One of Oppenheimer's former students remembered, "we could never get a science teacher. Then in walked this super high-class atomic physicist who was working on the atomic bomb." Fortunately for the hundred students of Pagosa Springs, unlike many other "super high-class" scientists, Frank was a truly gifted and intuitive teacher. Cole observes, "as Frank's students graduated and went on to college, word of their ability spread. A Caltech physicist, Hal Zirin, then at the University of Colorado, remembers that a stream of stellar students suddenly started arriving at the university from Pagosa Springs."

Cole arranges her book to show how Frank's life experiences made him the (only?) man who could both conceive the Exploratorium, a completely open space to play, explore, make mistakes and learn from them, and make it come to life - on charisma, charm and a shoestring budget. She sees the museum as his idealistic, populist response to the horror of the nuclear bomb he helped build: an effort to combat fear by empowering people to engage in self-directed learning.


Sun Painting
Bob Miller

Artists and scientists, Frank liked to say, are the official "noticers" of society -- those who help us pay attention to things we've either never learned to see or have learned to ignore.

From the beginning, Frank rejected traditional boundaries between disciplines. In his essay "Rationale for a Science Museum," he titles one section "A Possible Poem of Organization For Such a Science Museum." He compared particle accelerators with Gothic cathedrals. He invited San Francisco artists like the late Bob Miller to create installations like the Sun Painting, a sculpture of prisms and mirrors. Many of the displays in the Exploratorium are interactive art pieces, playing with light and sound. Frank's main requirements were that a display be intriguing, that it have good aesthetics - which meant "feeling nice" to the user and working well, even if it was made out of screws and old plywood - and that its internal mechanisms be completely transparent to the viewer (which meant, for a long time, no computers). Above all, the displays were supposed to be fun. As science writer Natalie Angier recently wrote, in a spirit very much like Frank Oppenheimer's,

Of course you should know about science, as much as you've got the synaptic space to fit. Science is not just one thing, one line of reasoning or a boxable body of scholarship, like, say, the history of the Ottoman Empire. Science is huge, a great ocean of human experience; it's the product and point of having the most deeply corrugated brain of any species this planet has spawned. If you never learn to swim, you'll surely regret it; and the sea is so big, it won't let you forget it.

Of course you should know about science, for the same reason Dr. Seuss counsels his readers to sing with a Ying or play Ring the Gack: These things are fun, and fun is good.

There's a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids like science museums. Science is fun. Not just gee-whizbang "watch me dip this rose into liquid nitrogen and then shatter it on the floor" fun, although it's that, too. It's fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun. Understanding how things work feels good. Look no further - there's your should. (from The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science)

The Exploratorium inspired many other science museums to embrace this childlike spirit. Britain's Exploratory Science Centre said in its 1983 Plan for Action, "There is, indeed, a House of Salomon, in New Atlantis - the Exploratorium in San Francisco which was founded by Dr. Frank Oppenheimer. It is Bacon's dream come true: an enchanted palace where anyone can by their own initiative, discover how things work; and a great deal about how he, himself or herself, understands and sees."

Cole worked for Frank Oppenheimer as a young writer, and clearly cared about him a great deal, so this is a tender, empathetic biography. Like everyone, Oppenheimer was flawed; Cole is clearly confused and distressed by his marital infidelities and occasional untruths (he initially lied about being a member of the Communist Party, a decision which would later haunt him). But she has written a poignant biography that rings true - you feel as if you would recognize Frank Oppenheimer if you met him on the street. When I watched Jon Else's 1982 documentary, Palace of Delights, I felt a flash of recognition when I glimpsed Oppenheimer peering from behind a cluster of visitors at an exhibit, with an expression of mingled pride and criticism. Whether or not Cole is right to focus so much on Oppenheimer as the Exploratorium's sole quickening spirit, I'd like to believe that he was every bit as playful and curious and idealistic and tenacious as his legacy suggests. It is profoundly comforting to me to know such people are in the world.

Reading this book was a celebration of everything I love about science, art, and teaching. I highly recommend it - especially for those of you who are teachers, museum curators, and educators (I've already ordered another copy and sent it to one of my friends who teaches high school science and robotics).

If in the course of some wandering I come onto something delightful or exhilirating or beautiful or insightful, I want to tell someone else what I have found. More than that, I want to bring them along with me to share what I have discovered: a view, a feeling, a person or a book or a new way of looking at physics or at justice, or a new way of teaching relativity.

All quotes are from Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up by K.C. Cole, unless noted otherwise.


The Exploratorium
Rationale For a Science Museum
Palace of Delights, a 1-hour documentary by Jon Else

Read the first chapter of Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens here. (PDF)


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I'm so glad you wrote this because I saw that book in B&N the other day and was equally confused. Maybe they should have gone with a different subtitle...

Hi Jessica, thanks for this well-written reminder of Oppenheimer's Exploratorium. Just a single point of disagreement on one important point (I haven't visited it for many years, and I haven't read Cole's book either, so I may have missed something crucial):

I believe it was a fundamental mistake by Oppenhaimer to call his vision a 'museum', and it is still a mistake to label it as such. Oppenheimer's institutional invention gave rise to a host of similar event centres for informal learning and entertainment around the world that are usually labelled 'science centers', not 'science museums'.

The most important distinction between a 'science center' and a 'science museum' is that museums are primarily institutions for the collection and preservation of the cultural heritage (science museums for the scientific heritage etc.) and especially the material and visual heritage (the documentary heritage is usually collected anbd preserved in libraries and archives).

To use this cultural and visual heritage as material for exhibitions, events etc. is an integral part of the museum function today. So museums have learned from science centers.

Science centers have rarely learned from museums, however. Few of them ever had the ambition to collect and preserve the cultural heritage -- curating the heritage isn't part of their identity.

Why quarrel about whether science centers are 'museums' or not? Simply because the heritage function of science museums has been under siege for a long time, economically, administratively and politically. Museums owners tend to emphasise the event and outreach functions, and tend to cut down funding for collection curators and conservators.

By labelling science centers as 'museums' we risk forgetting the hard and important work that museums actually undertake as cultural institutions. If flashy science centers call themselves 'museums', they apparently fulfil both roles -- so what do we then need museums and their dusty collections for?

In other words, science centers like Exploratorium are doing a great job in promoting interest in current science, but we shouldn't forget that science museums are doing an equally great job to preserve science of the past and present for future generations.

Hi Thomas, your input is as always valuable and well considered. I am of course not a curator myself, nor a student of the history of science museums. But I think that perhaps KC Cole's choice to use the word "museum," which I have followed in my review, was meant to do two things. First, she followed Oppenheimer's own use of the word, which as you note was rather subversive, especially at the time (which given his personality is not surprising). Second, I think she meant to provoke reflection on how the public's concept of a "museum" is changing. Places like the Smithsonian, for example, are clearly very important in curating our cultural history, but now also try to make some of that curation, such as restoration of paintings, visible to the public.

I grew up with OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) and Seattle's Pacific Science Center as my two models for what a science learning experience could be, so I am used to both "center" and "museum" being used for very similar experiences (both, I believe, inspired by the Exploratorium!).

The only thing I would challenge in your comment is this:

"In other words, science centers like Exploratorium are doing a great job in promoting interest in current science, but we shouldn't forget that science museums are doing an equally great job to preserve science of the past and present for future generations."

I don't think that the Exploratorium promotes interest in "current" science. I think it promotes interest in science, period. Many if not most of its displays are fairly primitive and could have been built decades if not centuries ago. So I think the focus is very much on the basics, which are timeless.

When it comes to "preserving science of the past," I think that is a really interesting and tightly packed phrase. What is "science of the past?" Is it antique apparatuses (?) and specimens collected in the past? Is it objects from the lives of Darwin, Einstein, Newton, etc.? Is it more abstract: theories and hypotheses of the past which have been superseded? I think all of these things are valuable, but I think a museum focusing on them would be more like a museum of the history of science, that is, a museum whose driving discipline is history or sociology, not science.

So I think we have a sort of continuum between a "science center" which does not preserve any history and promotes active learning on the one end, and on the other a "science history museum" which preserves artifacts important to scholars of science and technology studies, but does not influence current science at all. I'd guess most self-described "science museums" fall somewhere in the middle - especially if they have historical collections like study skins with multiple functions: contemporary researchers may wish to return to them for new analysis, they may serve a public education purpose, and they may also be a resource to historians or STS scholars in their analyses of the culture or practice of science. So I think the phrase "science of the past" is a really tricky and interesting phrase indeed.

Hi again, Jessica: Well, I guess it makes sense to set pure 'science history museum' and pure 'science center' up against each other as the outer ends of a continuum -- and as you say, most actual science museums contain a bit of both rationales --- both preservation of the heritage and a bit of engagement in scientific thinking and practice.

When you write that a 'science history museum" preserves artifacts "important to scholars of science and technology studies" and that they may be "a resource to historians or STS scholars in their analyses of the culture or practice of science", you are probably underestimating the value of a historical perspective for the understanding of science to people in general. As a director of a museum for the history of medicine (medical science), I don't believe its value lies in being for historians and STS scholars primarily, but for all kinds of people. In fact, most of our visitors come here to get a historical perspective on current medicine.

And it's the authentic historical artefacts that count. People want to see real things from the past (the medical science of the past) --- things that makes one reflect on the development of medicine from a pre-scientific practice only a couple of hundred yeatrs ago to a high-tech endeavour today.

I wish I had known the background of the Exploratorium when the family went a few years ago. I had never heard of it beforehand, but our host said no visitor with children should miss it. We had a wonderful time!

Well you can count me as one of the few east coasters (central NJ) who had heard of the Exploratorium. When my wife and I visited her relatives in SF ten years ago, I made it a point to take her to see it. We also took our 2yo toddler and 6mo newborn, with the toddler enjoying the interactive exhibits as much as a toddler can. Since then I have downloaded several lesson plans from the E's website to supplement my kid's science education.

And it is a definite stop when/if we get back...

Thanks for the timely review; Cole is one of my favorite science writers and I was recently thinking she seemed overdue for a new book --- wouldn't have guessed a biography, but sounds wonderful.

This post really makes me miss the Exploratorium. One thing you didn't highlight much is that it's probably the only science education place I've been that is for kids & adults. While kids love the place, adults could seriously go in there alone and have a great time.

I've been to other science centers, but there's really nothing like the Exploratorium.
Does the book go into why the place hasn't been replicated well? Do they really require a leader with a vision to get them off the ground? Was there some convergence of resources that got it started? So many science demonstrations are replicated from museum to museum that it seems like more of the Exploratorium model could be exported than is currently happening.

(Also a side rant that there's barely an scientific exploration museum in the D.C. area. The basement of the Smithsonian American History museum has a hint and Natural history is very passive. The Koshland Science museum really isn't of this model. There's the science center in Baltimore with expensive tickets and not much to show for it.)

Everyone owns their exhibits and models their programs, but the magic of the Exploratorium is singular. Some say its location, location, location â but see their funding portfolio. Last I checked, the endowment wasnât huge (another science center vs. museum legacy?), but research/development grants span art, science, and education; the exhibit group generates significant income; and they have done an amazing job of leveraging place (e.g., corporate sponsors around the region, San Franciscoâs public funding for arts and culture, gate fees/tourism).