Happy birthday Frank Oppenheimer!

The conservation of angular momentum at the Deutsches Museum

The conservation of angular momentum being demonstrated at the Deutsches Museum, 1926.

I’ve written about Frank Oppenheimer before, but as today marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, I thought he was worth mentioning again.

Frank Oppenheimer had a fascinating life. I highly recommend KC Cole’s biography of him. The short version is that he was born into a reasonably wealthy American family and followed big brother J Robert (of Manhattan Project fame) into physics. Frank stood next to Robert when the atom bomb was first tested. After the war, however, Frank ended up being black-balled from academic research due to his brief membership of the Communist Party in the 1930s. I’ve read rumours that this was because of how sensitive his brother’s work was to the energy industry but only rumours, I’ve never seen anything strong on that. So Frank sold an old painting of his Dad’s and ran a cattle ranch instead. How’s that for alternative postdoc careers? When a vacancy for a science teacher opened at the local high school a few years later, he tried his hand at education. He sounds like a fun teacher, starting lessons with trips to the local dump to collect bits of old machines to use in demonstrations of thermodynamics. He also developed a large library of teaching resources to share with other teachers or students. His reputation spread and he ended up being invited back to teach at the local university. In 1965, he secured a fellowship to do some research at UCL and, while he was there, visited several of the major European science museums. These inspired him to set up something similar, but more informal, when he got home. This became San Francisco’s Exploratorium, opened in 1969.

As the Exploratorium website puts it, they broke the science museum mold. It was more science by way of the local dump than the rarified archive of the Patent Museum and Great Exhibition which set the basis of the London Science Museum collection. Many exhibits were put together from old bits of scientific equipment Oppenheimer had talked contacts at NASA and Stanford into donating. There is a lovely story that someone spotted new traffic lights in the street outside, so they asked the company that manufactured the lights to donate the old ones and that became an early optics exhibit. From the start, the Exploratorium was built on a very scientific commitment to the sharing of knowledge and continuous development as well as reasonably artistic sense of playful reinterpretation. As their website puts it, the exhibits are never “done”. Maybe I’ve read too much sociology, but this image of slightly messy, opportunistic, networked and tinkered-with science seems like quite an appropriate exposition of 20th century research. There was also a strong commitment to openness. Their workshops were set in the centre of the museum, with windows so visitors could see the exhibits being developed and fixed. Most importantly, perhaps, they shared instructions of how to make their exhibits with other institutions through training networks and a set of “Cookbooks“. It’s all a bit open source.

Their ideas spread far and wide, and Exploratorium exhibits have been made and remade around the world. I once stumbled across a sort of pop up Exploratorium in a subway tunnel in Brussels which included exhibits made by schoolchildren. Exhibitions have been developed and localised as they moved. I remember a “thong-a-phone” exhibit from a science museum in Brisbane I worked in for a bit in 2001, which I’m guessing would have a different name in the UK or USA (it was a musical instrument you played by hitting pipes with what Australians call thongs but I’d call a flip-flop). They all also drew on a longer history than just the Exploratorium. The Science Museum’s Children’s Galleries, opened in 1931, sits firmly in this history, as do books and shows by characters such as John Henry Pepper.  The picture at the top of this post is of staff at the Deutsches Museum in 1926 demonstrating an exhibit which looks very like a common Cookbook exhibit on the conservation of anular momentum. I think the idea for “Explainers” to staff the gallies came from France, but today there are a huge range of different Explainer-like programmes all over the world.

In terms of the UK, it’s worth stressing the role of Anthony Wilson in the early development of the Launch Pad gallery in London’s Science Museum and Richard Gregory in Bristol as well as some of the hands-on exhibits at the Natural History Museum. Those are just a couple of names I could mention though, lots of other people have had a role all over the place, as the field has grown with a culture of continuous development which was facilitated by, but not in any way limited to or even originated with, the Exploratorium approach. Moreover, whatever the hardware, these exhibits would be constantly re-interpreted by staff and visitors. If I learnt anything from my time as an Explainer, it was that you couldn’t know how someone would interpret an exhibit. Reading kids’ letters to the Explainers was especially illuminating (sometimes outright puzzling). Science centres are about interaction, and are themselves a consequence of such interaction too.

So, Happy Birthday Frank Oppenheimer! You old (sorta) commie, you helped make something lovely. The power of the Exploratorium has arguably been due to communication between people and things, not individuals. Still, Dr O had key role. As his museum readies itself for a move next Spring, I hope the story of Frank’s interesting scientific career keeps on being told and his legacy continues to be redeveloped and remade across the world.

1 thought on “Happy birthday Frank Oppenheimer!

  1. Charles Carlson

    You know the irony of the photo above the museum guard or policeman demonstrating angular moment at the Deutsches Museum , is that the Exploratorium’s version is no longer on floor of the Exploratorium. It was one of Frank’s favorites, and was frequently being rebuilt for the first few years of the museum’s operation.


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