a day at the “museum”

Note: A few months ago now I was traveling, bouncing from one experience to another and all the while trying to stuff them into my head. This is extracted from my notes and attempts to create quick entries about specific visits, though the last few have not been so “quick.” This is the fourth in a series of five very distinct settings I got to experience on that trip.


There are museums, and then there are “museums.”* My archetype for a museum is one that holds collections, keeps them preserved for the sake of future study, cultural memory, and public display. We host dinosaur bones and impressionist art in museums, and we’ll travel miles to admire the holdings. As I grow older, I hold these places in higher and higher esteem alongside schools and libraries.

But there are also “museums.” One example of the kind of place I’m thinking about is the Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in New York. I like to point to this place because it is distinctly not a building which holds onto some preserved artifact. There is no room where you can go visit the original number three, not even seventeen. There aren’t fossilized records or canvases with layered oil brushstrokes. This is an example of a museum that documents and, more important, portrays ideas for the public to engage with. Inside of MoMath, you can make interesting geometrical constructions, ride a square-wheeled tricycle, and measure your velocity on a walkway and be inadvertently introduced to calculus concepts, whether you knew these were calculus concepts or not.

Science museums and planetariums are in this same group for the most part. Of these, the Exploratorium may be the most well known and regarded, and for good reason. For me, though, the science museum that I grew up with and idealize is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, or OMSI. Thirty years ago, it was adjacent to the zoo and forestry center off the highway the headed towards the Oregon Coast from Portland. Now it sits downtown, on the shore of the Willamette River in an old power plant formerly known as “Station L.”

There is a deliberateness in this location. The river provides a context as well as a place for the submarine that sits outside the building. The old power plant provides a historical context and a science lesson all in one. The large smoke stack, now dormant but painted bright red, provides a landmark for a destination and a visible reference as you’re crossing a bridge or scanning from the opposing shore. It is distinctly industrial on the outside, holding true to the “I” in its acronym.

On the inside, it is distinctly whimsical. There are displays and activities and labs. You can sit at a counter and order an experiment. You can walk through the hollowed industrial space and suddenly realize that the rainbow colored cartoon character on the screen in front of you is you and your heat profile. You can launch water rockets, inside, within a multistory container — with the added ability to pressurize two rockets, side by side, with a clear variable to test and a satisfying recoil of water spraying downward. There is a working paleontological lab where you can watch the extraction of a dinosaur fossil, one grain of sand at a time.

There’s wide variation. There’s a sobering and fascinating room of plasticized, developing embryos that is a quiet reprieve from other ebullience just outside. A computer gives me a sense of how I’ll look in many decades, while a special exhibit while I was there showed optical illusions, including an image of myself, now, in a warped mirror. In another room, kids and families and even the one solitary 40-something man (that’s me) could interact with simulations about waste management and energy production. I tried to help the museum by creating electricity as I danced on an energy converting platform.

At “Theory,” OMSI’s eatery, there are fireplaces, open seating at tables built from reclaimed solid ash and on stools from recycled aluminum. Out expansive windows you can see the natural state of a river and the engineering marvel of bridges in all forms. There are large displays advertising “Science to Snack On,” providing information about the science of food. There’s also an explicit connecting to people and the Portland vibe. You can get an organic snack, a lunch from the wood fire pizza oven, or even a drink at the bar. “Science Pub,” a regular event that brings an audience in for a beer and a science presentation, is advertised.

The museum is a lot of different things; reading, displays, specimen, activity, historical space. In fact, it may be so many things that it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is — and I didn’t even take partake of the planetarium or the theater. There’s no doubt that the space provides interaction and inquiry. I could spend hours finding ways to get disks and orbs to roll on a horizontal, rotating platform; or to create from paper a design that would spin and levitate in an upflow of air (I had to be careful that I wasn’t pushing children aside in my zeal).

But my favorite exhibit, by far, sits in a corner of the physics room, overlooking the river. It’s the harmonograph. This consists of two long pendula hanging from above my head and extending almost to the floor. In the middle of one is a platform with a piece of paper; and in the middle of the other is a pen. When the two move, the pen traces on the paper a pattern that is dependent on the two motions, creating all kinds of possible patterns depending on the phase and direction of the two swingers. In case it’s unclear what kind of possibilities could result, here are some my very own harmonograph tracings overlain on one another:


Maybe my love of this is based on something in the core of my childhood memory, a nostalgia — this is one of the few, if only, exhibits that was at the OMSI I grew up with a kid. Years after I’d first seen and maybe even forgotten about the harmonograph, I’d be working with an oscilloscope and making lisajous figures that would look very much the same, but resulted from the measurements of voltages across components of an AC circuit. And maybe as I’ve done more with math and physics I like to come back to this place that may have, in some subtle way, been a launching point for the person and profession I now live.

But I think it’s something more than this. There’s the simplicity and the elegance in a harmonograph, all at once. There are distinct, simple variables, but so many unimagined possibilities. There is beauty. And, there was a simple focus and calm. Overlooking the river and the walkway, I could see beyond, but I could also focus within. For all of the many exciting exhibits — launching rockets, dinosaur bones, and chemical properties, all steps away — this one still pulls me in.


* I’ve been having fun in recent days responding to an email from my dean who called all the faculty back to school with our first meeting. He’d said that there would be “lunch” at this “retreat,” using the quotation marks for both of these. I know why we often use quotes in this way, excusing the nature of a meal or a meeting and all that maybe it is not. In this case, I’m suggesting “museums” have lots of different forms, and many of them take on a certain superlative when I describe “museums” rather than museums that might be more traditional. Or, “traditional.”