Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Community & Society
Published on July 26, 2019
New Exploratorium exhibit in Civic Center invites visitors to 'pull up a chair' and chatPhotos: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline

The Exploratorium invites residents and visitors around the Civic Center library to pull up a chair and chat, with a new interactive exhibit set to open on August 13.

Middle Ground: Reconsidering Ourselves and Others consists of 14 architectural-scale towers that aim to encourage visitors to interact with each other and consider their place in the community. 

Rendering of Middle Ground | Courtesy of The Exploratorium 

Each of the towers features a different kind of chair or seat on top, along with a prompt for conversation about particular issues affecting the surrounding community.

One exhibit, Unseen Stories, asks visitors to share an experience during which they’ve been stereotyped, and one in which they believe they may have stereotyped someone.

Exploratorium social scientist Heike Winterheld said the experience can be applicable right away, and could change someone’s thought process or raise awareness of a topic that could otherwise feel outside of a single person’s control.

Another tower will ask passers-by to estimate the difficulty of climbing the social ladder, economically and educationally, Winterheld said. The exhibit offers data to which visitors can compare their estimates. She said people often find they underestimate the difficulty of moving up in the world.

The exhibit will also explain some of the hurdles people face and how inequality could be addressed at a micro level, she added.

Another exhibit, "Pay-it-Forward Cafe" was prototyped outside the library earlier this year | Photo: The Exploratorium

The exhibit’s towers break down the space in front of the western doors of the main San Francisco Public Library to a human scale, Winterheld said. Sight lines are preserved, so visitors still feel safe, but the space is divided to keep them from feeling overwhelmed. Tables and chairs will be added near the exhibits to further encourage people to linger and engage.

The new exhibition is part of a now seven-year partnership between the Exploratorium and SF Planning, and part of a long-term process to help activate and attract people to the Civic Center common areas, Exploratorium senior artist and outdoor gallery curator Shawn Lani said. 

“We are in the Civic Center because the City wanted us there,” he added. The museum has worked with the Civic Center Commons collaborative to identify locations and partners over the years.

The exhibit  funded through an Advancing Informal STEM Learning grant from the National Science Foundation and Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation, museum public relations manager Avi Martin said.

Each tower is intended to encourage visitors to 'pull up a chair' and linger over conversation

Work on Middle Ground started about 18 months ago, and the steps of the library were selected as a prime spot to make more welcoming and safer, Lani said. The goal is to get people to spend more time in the Civic Center rather than just passing through, and the library is a key spot that people already visit. 

Lani said the library staff has been fantastic to partner with. 

“It is an incredibly empathetic organization… the staff is able to help govern spaces in a very welcoming manner toward all people,” he said. 

Many of the exhibits were developed through prototypes displayed in the main hall of the Central Library, Lani said. The museum wanted to identify topics that are relevant and applicable to both visitors to the city and people that frequent or even live in Civic Center common spaces. 

A prototype of "Pulling Together" was tested inside the main library | Photo: The Exploratorium 

The museum partnered with the Community Housing Partnership to talk with Tenderloin residents about the potential displays, to identify issues that would draw them to interact with the exhibit and to make sure the topics were not triggering or off-putting, Lani said. 

“It has been an evolution for the museum to put exhibits out where people live… drawing inspiration from the current state of things,” he added. 

Lani is particularly excited about the role of the Urban Alchemy stewards, who will provide oversight of the exhibit and serve as mediators between visitors interacting with the different displays. 

The stewards, who are already deployed throughout the Civic Center Commons and helped encourage interaction with previous Exploratorium exhibits in the area, are sensitive, smart, and treat everyone with respect, Lani said. 

A visitor at the former 'Sound Commons' Installation | Photo: Blair Czarecki /Hoodline

“It has been and continues to be insightful for us at the museum to see how that type of engagement can help people slow down and engage with the exhibits,” he added.

Their oversight and guidance at the new exhibit will serve as a type of research project on how the stewards can enhance visitors’ interaction with the exhibit, Lani said.

A ribbon cutting for the new exhibit is planned for August 13 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the exhibit will stand for a full year.