By Ashley Goldsmith
One year into his new gig running the Exploratorium, Chris Flink is steering the science museum into a bold new era. The Stanford-educated, one-time boy wonder wants to expose visitors to wild new experiences and leave them “seeing the world a little differently,” he says, “because what we’re doing isn’t only timeless but also more relevant than ever.”
It’s an uncharacteristically warm afternoon at Pier 15, early enough in the day that the fog hasn’t started to creep in. At the Exploratorium, daylight breaks through the skylights and window panes, illuminating the main floor where groups of kids are running between exhibits, their faces beaming with excitement. They’re finally at a museum where they’re not only allowed but actually encouraged to play with—and touch—everything.
If you’ve ever spent an afternoon at the Exploratorium, you’d be hard pressed to find the right word to describe the institution. It’s more engaging than a standard museum but infinitely more approachable than any science center you’ve been to. Hands-on and interactive, it’s essentially the embodiment of the phrase “learning is fun.”
“While we’ll accept the moniker ‘museum,’ we’re not really that,” says Chris Flink, the recently appointed executive director, while pointing out the posters and drawings from previous exhibits that adorn the walls of his office. “We more aptly describe ourselves as a public learning laboratory.”
The Exploratorium was created in 1969 by the late physicist Frank Oppenheimer. While it started as a sort of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory filled with old machine parts and experiential exhibits, it has grown over the past 50 years to become a leader in its field for both innovation and education. At any given time, you’ll find more than 600 exhibits and experiences on the floor and diverse groups of students and educators developing the skills necessary to feel confident as learners.
After nearly a decade as the Exploratorium’s executive director, Dennis Bartels stepped down last year due to an illness. Bartels was at the helm of the museum’s epic move from the Palace of Fine Arts to Pier 15 in 2013; the museum’s board set up a committee to conduct an international search for his successor. The search took nearly six months. It required the group to think outside the box and find a candidate who was both science-focused and creative—someone who could not only manage, but steer the museum into the next half-century by continuing to pioneer and redefine the idea of how science and art could work together in one space.
While Bartels led the Exploratorium through an enormous transition as it settled into its new home on the Embarcadero, it was now Chris Flink’s turn to take the reins. He’s a tall, bespectacled man with salt-and-pepper hair who makes you feel at ease while describing the intricacies of what the Exploratorium means to the community. He was born in New York City and moved to the Bay Area to attend Stanford, where he received a degree in engineering and product design. After graduation, Flink became the youngest original partner at IDEO, the international design firm, where he spent 19 years in a variety of roles from heading its consumer experience design practice to co-founding its New York office. He also earned his master’s in Management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, after which he became a founding faculty member at Stanford’s Institute of Design, where he remains a consulting associate professor for courses in design, engineering and business.
George Cogan, chairman of the Exploratorium board, considered Flink’s dynamic background an opportunity to grow the museum’s reach. “Chris has spent much of his career designing hands-on educational experiences, and that gives him a unique perspective on our institution,” Cogan says.
According to Flink, this union was 25 years in the making. When he first came to Northern California for undergrad, Flink and his Stanford classmates visited the Exploratorium when it was at the Palace of Fine Arts. “The Exploratorium spoke to me and I just loved it—unlike any place of the kind I’d ever been to before,” he muses. “I grew up with parents who were artistic, so I had been to a lot of museums, but something about this place resonated with me. I may not have been able to articulate it as an 18-year-old, but at the time I was both very technical, with an interest in engineering, and had been artistic my entire life so I found this to be one of the most inspiring places on Earth.”
While the Exploratorium has shed light on the relationship between science and art since its inception, Flink is committed to disrupting what he calls a false dichotomy between the two. He explains that while scientists and artists use different methods and approaches, we should embrace their common curiosity rather than separating them as opposite ends of a made-up spectrum. He’s taken that philosophy to heart in his new role.
During his first year as executive director, Fink has worked to maintain the Exploratorium’s rich history while pushing things forward at the still-new Embarcadero home. He’s introduced temporary exhibits like this summer’s “Welcome to Wildcard,” a collaboration with the Cardboard Institute of Technology where artists wielding box cutters and glue guns create a compelling dream-world out of allegedly dull material. This November, Flink is bringing back last winter’s popular exhibit, “Curious Contraptions,” a collection of mechanical “automata” sculptures that perform their own mini-dramas through an arrangement of cranks, cams and other mechanics.
Today, in a political climate where science and facts are constantly being challenged, Flink is confident that progressive, pro-science Bay Area and Silicon Valley communities will continue to ask questions, collaborate and innovate—regardless of who’s in the Oval Office. He argues that the museum’s existence is largely thanks to SF’s “ethos” as a creative, interdisciplinary city and that the Exploratorium authentically taps into that quirky San Francisco culture. He hopes that ethos sticks with visitors as the Exploratorium moves closer to its milestone 50th birthday.
“I’m happiest when people don’t just leave here having had a great experience, but when they leave seeing the world a little differently,” he says. “When places like the Exploratorium amplify phenomena in our exhibits, it invites people to see things in their daily life just a little differently. … That’s when I think we’re making a difference, because what we’re doing isn’t only timeless but also more relevant than ever.”