NFPF Grant Winner: The Exploratorium

A still from Jon Boorstin's 1974 film, "Exploratorium." Courtesy: The Exploratorium
The Exploratorium, a San Francisco institution that explores the intersections of art, science, and human perception, and helps users to take a curious, playful approach to doing the same, will use a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to conserve Jon Boorstin’s Exploratorium, a documentary short filmed in 1974 that portrays the renowned Bay Area institution.

Among the institution’s programs and resources are hundreds of explore-for-yourself exhibits, a Web site with over 25,000 pages of content, film screenings, workshops for lifelong learners, and evening art and science events for adults. It also creates development programs that help educators change the way they teach science. Boorstin, born in 1946, made Exploratorium at the beginning of his career. In addition to directing one other short, in 1993, he has long been an active producer and writer of movies (among them, All the President’s Men) and television episodes (The Commish, Three Moons Over Milford, and other series).

His Exploratorium was a commissioned project, funded jointly by the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Science Foundation. The Exploratorium hoped to use the film as a way of introducing people who couldn’t visit the museum to its new ideas. Charles Eames, the great designer and filmmaker, was key in securing the funding and encouraging the Exploratorium to consider film as a tool for communication. Eames was an important inspiration and advisor to the Exploratorium – in particular Cinema Arts where his films were some of the fundamental and earliest holdings in the collection.

To mimic being an actual visitor, Boorstin first committed to recording on 35mm film, doubling the intended budget, to better capture the various textures, patterns, and nuance of light characterizing the space. Boorstin spent a good deal of time in the Museum, story-boarding most of the content prior to filming due to the expensive film stock used. He also had to be inventive in his sound recording. He was using sound film with cameras that were not soundproof, but intended for the bulk of the film’s sound to be asynchronous.

At the time of the commission, Boorstin had been working for Charles Eames and Eames’s work greatly influenced his own. Boorstin’s vision for the film was inspired by Eames’ classic films like Tops, which he describes as, “visually expressive [without] a narrator or narrative line, but composed more like music, with movements and an overall shape to the experience.

The result was a visually evocative and unique film experience, while also capturing the frenetic energy and seemingly disjunctive points of play that shape the educational experience.

To evoke the museum’s philosophy of intersecting art and science the film uses evocative visuals and the textured sounds of various installations at the museum. “It captured the creative ethos and underlining vision established by Oppenheimer in the early days of the Exploratorium and that continues to be a driving force in exhibit and program development,” says Liz Keim, director of the Exploratorium Cinema Arts program.

Exploratorium opens with the sound of willing children’s voices shouting “Exploratorium,” with images of cranking display devices and the decontextualized images of the facility’s architectural infrastructure. An avant-garde soundtrack of electronic whirs and tubular bells enhances the visuals as those shift to a smoky play of light and dark that settles on refracted and reflected closeups of the facility’s metallic interior and then a visitor’s silhouette as he feels his way into an amorphous, cloudy screening area. It’s all quite trippy.

And it’s the way the film proceeds, from there. In a contorted, marine-green interior, children and adults yammer, yelp, and scream in the excitement of projecting their images on a time-delaying photosensitive surface. Strobe lighting flashes. A rotating spiral mesmerizes as it illustrates the “motion aftereffect.” A viewer says: “I’m just tripping out on this.”

And so it goes on, with illustrations of dizzying, echo and sond effects, the motion of pendulums, and other scientific phenomena. Translucent fish. Optical illusions. Tests of proprioception.

The Cinema Arts program at the Exploratorium has been working closely with Boorstin and the Academy Film Archive on this preservation project. Some years ago, Boorstin got in touch with the Academy Film Archive to initiate a conversation about preserving the film and creating new prints. The Academy’s response was encouraging, but its archive held only two badly faded 35mm prints, a 16mm print, and a reference video. The project would have required the elements be color corrected, using the reference video.

Then it came to light that the Exploratorium has held all known production elements of Exploratorium since the 1990s. That was the case because after the lab Boorstin worked with closed in the early 1990s, it transferred the materials directly to the Exploratorium.

Exploratorium (which can be viewed online ) won a nomination for the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. It is a key document of the institution, and “comes at a critical juncture in the Exploratorium’s history, both philosophically and physically,” says Keim. “The museum is embarking on its move from its original home at the Palace of Fine Arts to San Francisco’s vibrant waterfront at the historic Pier 15. The film stands as a time capsule of place and time in the making of a new kind of interactive museum when the Exploratorium first opened in 1969.”

Keim says Exploratorium “captures the early spark of founder Frank Oppenheimer’s ideas and eloquently visualizes the tenor of the museum’s environment – one of personal and social engagement with natural phenomena.”

That vision persists even as the institution increasingly acts as an incubator of critical thinking in art, science, and education. “Not only does Exploratorium serve its initial mandate as an orientation document, an expression of philosophy and landscape,” Keim says. “it also continues to play beautifully in our public programs as an experiential cine poem.”

– Peter Monaghan, & Exploratorium releases

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