Story 05: Memoirs of a Bubble Blower

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Story 05 Introduction

Written by Mike Spock

Bubbles have a strong association of with play and frivolity, even joy. By installing an exhibit about bubbles the museum was saying that bubbles are also worthwhile "educationally." But, the exhibit did more than just "display bubbles." How they were displayed was a big part of the message. Soap film had been exhibited previously in science centers. Usually, wire frames were dipped into a soap solution and then lifted out to show the way the film made interesting geometric intersections. However, in most science centers this activity all happened behind a Plexiglas container. The visitor could not do anything directly with the device or with the bubbles. In The Children's Museum bubble exhibit, all the manipulations were done by the visitor. It provided immediate and direct access to the phenomenon and invited the visitor to actively explore. - Bernie Zubrowski

Bernie Zubrowski's life-long work was always grounded in the idea that doing science is not necessarily an exotic exercise, only practiced by scientists in lab coats with advanced degrees using expensive hi-tech equipment.

To Bernie, the essence of his "small science" can be experienced and grasped by kids, parents, and teachers using everyday stuff bought from a hardware or grocery store, or scavenged from under the sink. Half-gallon milk cartons, filled with ordinary sand, could work as sturdy classroom blocks for building structures. Paper towels and Easter egg dyes could allow families to separate colors in a kitchen chromatography experiment. Aluminum pie plates, spindled back to back with paper cups serving as turbine blades, could become waterwheels. Contraptions rigged from coat hangers, soda straws, string, and cafeteria trays would let visitors stretch or blow huge or tiny—but always elegant—bubbles using dishwashing detergent. (The secret: full-strength Proctor & Gamble Joy.)

These activities were mostly worked out by Bernie in community centers with neighborhood kids. They were built on his early experiments teaching science in Bangladesh villages using natural and salvaged materials, and later modified as curriculum units for the Education Development Center in the African Science Project, post Sputnik, when America was trying to catch up with the Russians.

What started in response to Third World underdevelopment became Bernie's passion and doctrine in Boston: keeping classroom and neighborhood science inexpensive, accessible, and understandable. Simple tools and materials were things to be treasured and celebrated.

But after a decade of curricular and afterschool outreach activities, there was growing interest from many sides to see Bernie's science at work on the museum's exhibit floors. Like all developers dependent on more than one source of income, Bernie divided his time among multiple projects: he did direct service with kids, families, and teachers; trained interpreters for floor duty; curated collections (his workspace always displayed a "collection" of handmade working models;) assembled curricular activities and resources for kits and books; conceived and worked out visitor exhibits and programs; and served as a subject matter specialist.

Developers were Renaissance people, comfortable with every intellectual challenge presented. But, of course, most of these experts had holes in their skills and interests, and all needed help from others, at least at some point.

John Spalvins, from Design and Production, was assigned to work with Bernie on adapting his activities from the gentler classroom/afterschool environment into the hurly burly of the Visitor Center. With engineering training, John served as Bernie's primary exhibit designer, builder, and maintainer. Janet Kamien functioned as their exhibit broker/project manager and Pat Steuert and Elaine Heumann Gurian as their division managers. Each stood ready to help make Bernie's exhibit translations rugged enough to withstand the wear and tear of unstaffed, interactive exhibitry.

At the beginning of their two-decade working relationship, Bernie dug in his heels insisting that the essence of his work would be compromised when turned into more superficial, yet more quickly grasped and easily maintained experiences. A fifteen-minute exhibit encounter was just not equivalent to several unhurried afternoons with Bernie and neighborhood kids in a South Boston housing project. On the other hand, John saw Bernie's fragile working models as impractical and his approach to small science inadaptable to the Visitor Center. For what seemed like months of negotiation (one more try!) they hammered out their differences while the supremely practical Janet Kamien acted as the go-between trying to remain evenhanded and patient.

Among the brightest and most inventive members of the staff, Bernie and John were worth the trouble! They used their considerable problem-solving capacities together with Janet's persuasive powers to find common ground, gradually adjusting to each other's quirks and prejudices, and even beginning to count on their complementary skills and insights to work themselves out of tight spots. They grew wiser and humbler about what they knew and what they didn't, and even more stubborn about fending off "suggestions" about what they had already tried and discarded.

You will find not a hint of discord in Bernie's story. But the other players shared more than one tale about how tough it was to deal with the disagreements that broke out from time to time while Bernie, John, and Janet created exhibits.

When they were about to be interviewed by me for Boston Stories, I prepared some slightly provocative questions meant to reveal the tensions obvious to anyone close enough to observe their early working relationship. But their interviews and stories revealed only a hint of the tension they initially lived with. Their remembered stories were about how they worked together to solve problems, not how difficult it was to negotiate their differences.

Next: How I Came to the Museum