Thursday, December 30, 2004


Raleigh, NC is home to the Exploris children's museum. Calling itself the "First interactive museum about the world" it has been open for several years and, as far as I can tell, it has lost money each and every day it has been in operation. It is a very high-concept undertaking, started and run by very nice, very well-intended people who work very hard and have no idea why it doesn't seem to be getting much traction.

In theory it is quite an interesting place. It features, for instance, a wall of marbles that contains over a million marbles sandwiched between perforated steel plates. The wall is backlit and each marble acts as a pixel in an image of the world as seen from space. It has its own demonstration water-treatment plant (PDF) and the stream of clean water that runs across the courtyard has been recovered from the museum's restrooms. It has edgy architecture with lots of flying staircases and an interesting reverse-suspension bridge across the main lobby. The exhibits feature different cultures from around the world and try to show how interconnected they all are. The place has a lot going for it and it really should be swell. But it's not. It's dreary as hell.

Consider the wall of marbles: it was designed by artist Thomas Sayre who also has a monumental piece on display on the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art. It is one of the main attractions of the museum but it is hard to get to see it. It is best viewed at night when the museum is closed. I've been to the museum twice and I have yet to really see the wall. I did catch a glimpse once -- over my sholder one evening as I drove down a busy one-way street near the museum. Next time I go I'm going to ask one of the curators if there is any way to see the wall. Maybe I missed it somehow. But, if I did, it's because they don't make it easy. The floor plan, for instance, does not mention it.

If you look at that floor plan you will notice that by the time you take away all the classrooms and offices, meeting rooms and courtyards, the catering kitchen, the cloakroom, the suspension bridge, flying staircases, lobbies, etc. there isn't much room left for exhibits. In another museum that would be a bad thing. But at Exploris one is rather glad there isn't more to see and do.

The name of the museum -- "Exploris" -- sounds adventurous and exciting. Sadly, it doesn't describe the content of the museum very well. A better name would be "The Internationalist Nagging Center," or perhaps more simply, "The Scolding Place." These names would better capture the flavor of the exhibits that present information about other countries, not because it is interesting, but to serve as illustrations for little Stalinist tableaus, showing that the natives of Sub-Saharan Africa use less water than we do, or that millions of people in China ride non-polluting bicycles to work every day. Exploris is obsessed with the Third World which, it seems, is peopled by earnest, oddly joyless people whose enforced virtues "we would do well to emulate."

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