A major San Francisco museum that celebrates a “hands-on, learning-by-doing ethos” plans to present an exhibit about the commons by letting people experience a taste of its dynamics. As reported in today’s New York Times, the Exploratorium will open a new $220 million facility along the Embarcadero next spring, where it will likely attract larger crowds. The museum will have three times more exhibition space than its current facility, and it will feature exhibits dealing with the environment, microbiology and social psychology.
As the Times reports:
Prototypes have already been tested on the floor of the current Exploratorium. In one social psychology exhibit, some items of modest value, like a calculator were put out at the beginning of the day. Visitors were told they could take an item, provided they replace it with something else.
“The goal of this is to have a ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation,” said Hugh McDonald, one of the curators of a new gallery, which will focus on human behavior. “This table is a commons. It’s up to you to maintain it with the quality of interesting stuff.”
If people do not, he said, participants learn that “it turns to trash.”
One day, the value of the exchanged items remained steady throughout the day. Another day, all that was left by day’s end were gum wrappers and scraps of paper.
“I was just really disappointed in humanity,” said Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough, the exhibit builder.
In another exhibit under development, visitors will race toy cars around a track, except all of the cars will share a finite amount of fuel. If everyone drives quickly, the fuel will be spent and no one will get to the finish line. Thus, for anyone to win, the competitors need to balance their individual desire to win with the need to cooperate with others.
“A lot of these exhibits depend on a moment of reflection, a moment of contemplation, a moment of discussion with someone else,” Dr. McDonald said.
Let’s hope that the new, final exhibit doesn't simply try to confirm people's suspicions about the commons as a failure. It should try to educate people about successful commons and how they can work. It would be a shame if the exhibit simply considered a commons a matter of individual choice, and not something that requires some level of organization, rule-sets, infrastructures and interventions (especially when the visitors to a museum are strangers to each other, and not an intact community). It is now well-documented that the Hardin "tragedy" is not inevitable -- but the design principles for successful commons are less well-known. Please, Exploratorium -- let's help move that ball forward!
It bears noting that the Exploratorium is not your typical museum. “It was not designed to glorify anything,” its founder Dr. Frank Oppenheimer wrote in 1972. “We have not built exhibits whose primary message is, ‘Wasn’t somebody else clever?’ or ‘Hasn’t someone done a great service to mankind and the American way of life?’ Nor do we tell people what they are supposed to get out of a particular exhibit, or make them feel silly or stupid because they enjoyed it in a way that was perhaps not intended.” The Exploratorium sees its mission as helping people get deeper into issues, and go beyond the pop science and blockbuster exhibitions that some museums favor.
All I can say is “Bravo!” Here's hoping that the new commons exhibit opens up people's minds to new possibilities.