Reimagining the Urban: Marina McDougall

As part of the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, the Arts Research Center is co-sponsoring the upcoming symposium Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space. Participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Marina McDougall, Director of the Center for Art & Inquiry at the Exploratorium.
Keywords: Museum as Urban Incubator
Several years ago at a public forum at the Oakland Museum of California, Open Restaurantcollaborator Jerome Waag asked, “How does a museum become an incubator generating new forms of civic engagement?”
Though no one that evening took it up, the question continues to resonate. The Oakland Museum soon after its founding in 1969 was hailed as “the people’s museum.” (I worked on a project called the Marvelous Museum with artist Mark Dion that delved into the OMCA’s early formation). Similarly, the Exploratorium also opened in 1969 with a wooden sign hung in its enormous space capturing its vision, “Here is being created the Exploratorium, a community museum dedicated to awareness.”
Today, the democratic ethos captured in these late 1960’s statements still inspires as we work to develop strategies that privilege public participation and a more porous relationship between institutions and the communities that animate them.
The Exploratorium recently moved to a new waterfront location on Pier 15 along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Here we are looking afresh at what it means to be a “community museum.” In the arts we can engender this in enumerable ways: from the long term relationships that we develop; to the artistic strategies and explorations that we support; to the experiences that we seed in the public plaza right outside our door.
This month we will install a large scale sculpture Social Modified Bench created by the Copenhagen-based artist Jeppe Hein. Hein’s work playfully reveals how design anticipates and shapes social interactions. His sculptural benches transform the standard-issue park bench into forms that engender new social relationships and interactions.
We are also experimenting with a new public program Market Days a series of free, open-air mini-festivals featuring offerings from local artists, scientists, inventors, etc. Like a farmer’s market, this program will foster connections between locals and serve a valuable “place-making” role.
The Center for Art & Inquiry recently organized a project in collaboration with artist-in-residence Harrell Fletcher entitled The Best Things in Museums are the Windows involving a  four-day trek from the Exploratorium to the top of Mt. Diablo. The name of the project comes from a quote by the impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. The quote suggests that the heightened encounters of museums have the power to transform the way we experience the everyday world around us. Fletcher’s walking project re-situated the pedagogical work of the Exploratorium along a trajectory that spanned the Bay, a series of neighborhoods, and the foothill trails of Mt. Diablo. Along the way, Exploratorium educators and a wide array of people illuminated the path we traversed (in both formal and informal ways). Explorations encompassed themes including: the speed that sound travels in relation to light; radio activity on Treasure Island; the historic street car lines of Oakland; the microscopic life in a creek; geologic time; pigeon anatomy; the cycles of the moon; and geodesy. 
We’re also trying new curatorial strategies in our new Bay Observatory, a glass box space located on the far east side of our new building on Pier 15 where the landscape outside the windows is itself the exhibit. Working with an interdisciplinary team of cultural geographers, geologists, filmmakers, and many others, Exploratorium staff artist Susan Schwartzenberg has developed a new suite of exhibits for understanding the local landscape. Conversations about Landscape, a new series will turn the gallery into a public forum for discussions related to local ecology.
Museums can loom like impenetrable monoliths, and yet they are a continuum of the communities that surround them. How do we turn them inside out to create greater connection to the street? How can museums deepen an appreciation of the uniquely local towards a more aware and pro-active public? At the Exploratorium’s new location we are just beginning to understand the opportunities to develop new forms of public pedagogy.