Exploratorium Announces New Public Space Installation: Middle Ground

Media Contacts:

Exploratorium Press Office

San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco Planning

Exploratorium Announces New Public Space Installation: Middle Ground

 Installation Brings Social Science Insights to San Francisco’s Civic Center

* View this press release on the Exploratorium's Press Office website.

SAN FRANCISCO (July 17, 2019)—The Exploratorium has announced that it will open a public installation located in San Francisco’s Civic Center, entitled Middle Ground: Reconsidering Ourselves and Others. Developed in close collaboration with the City of San Francisco, the San Francisco Public Library, and key community stakeholders, the installation focuses on engaging the public in aspects of social science. The year-long installation will officially open on August 13th, 2019. 

Middle Ground brings insights from social science research to a public, urban environment, inviting people to learn more about themselves and how they relate to the people around them through the process of interacting with the installation and each other. Middle Ground will include 14 architectural-scale, interactive, and multimedia exhibits about topics such as stereotypes and bias, social influence, prosocial behavior, and social polarization. 

Middle Ground creates an extraordinary opportunity for us to engage ourselves and our fellow citizens in compelling learning experiences and—perhaps as importantly—real conversations,” said Chris Flink, the Exploratorium’s Sakurako and William Fisher Executive Director. “We are thrilled to share these eye-opening experiences in a public space at the center of civic life in our beloved city. As the Exploratorium celebrates its 50th anniversary year, we are particularly interested in the role of civic agency as we look ahead to the collective challenges of the future, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to work in close collaboration with our partners to bring this unique installation to life.” 

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Experiences from the Middle Ground installation: the Pay It Forward cafe and "Pulling Together."

“The Exploratorium is a pioneer in bringing creative science experiences to many audiences - including those beyond the museum’s walls,” said Greg Bousted, Director of Science Sandbox at the Simons Foundation. “We’re thrilled to support this innovative new exhibit that reinforces the idea that science is for everyone.” 

The exhibition is part of the Civic Center Commons Initiative, a collaborative effort to breathe new life into central civic spaces led by the City of San Francisco in partnership with neighbors, community organizations, and cultural institutions. With the development and installation of Middle Ground, the Exploratorium extends an ongoing six-year partnership with the City of San Francisco to create convivial, educational, and inclusive public spaces in some of San Francisco’s most challenging areas. 

Middle Ground is a fascinating project that serves as part of a broader effort to bring positive activation to Civic Center in the near term, while also advancing the long-term vision for these spaces through the Civic Center Public Realm Plan,” said John Rahaim, Director of San Francisco Planning. “I’m proud of how the City has taken a holistic and coordinated approach to investing in the community and delivering new and exciting public amenities while making public spaces safe, welcoming, and fun for both residents and visitors.” 

“Inquiry into social phenomena is not only critical to understanding psychological mechanisms and principles, but is of fundamental importance in maintaining a citizenry capable of meeting real-life global challenges,” said Shawn Lani, Principal Investigator of Middle Ground. “When we add exhibits and digital content to a social gathering place, we can frame and augment people’s natural social curiosity with deeper perspectives and skills. It’s a novel and unique use of public space for informal learning.” 

Middle Ground will be installed on the western plaza of the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, facing the open Civic Center Plaza, Larkin Street, and City Hall. The Exploratorium is also working in close partnership with the San Francisco Public Library, the Civic Center Commons Initiative, and other site partners to ensure that Middle Ground will be a safe, inclusive space that invites everyone to be part of the conversation. All aspects of the exhibition will be ADA compliant, and Spanish, Chinese, and Braille translations will be available on-site.

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Architectural rendering of the Middle Ground installation.

“As an institution that fosters and celebrates social bonds, inclusion and learning from shared experiences, the Library is proud to provide an innovative space for this essential project,” said Michael Lambert, City Librarian. “We’re excited to be a part of building a community where all are welcome both within our walls and on our front steps.” 

Visitors from all walks of life can acquire new social observation skills,reflect on their own perceptions and actions, and increase their appreciation for how social behavior can be studied scientifically. For example, in the exhibit “Pulling Together,” a group of three participants are asked to engage in two rounds of a tedious task. In the first round their individual contributions to the task are anonymous. In the second round, each individual’s effort is revealed, allowing people to reflect on how the presence of others can lead to changes in their behavior. In “Unseen Stories,” visitors share their experiences on cards and display them on a board for others to read. These experiences help visitors reflect on why and how others may stereotype them, how they stereotype others, and the role stereotypes play in our culture. 

“Social scientists are not only trying to explain human behavior, they also apply their knowledge to important questions concerning society at large,” said Heike Winterheld, staff social psychologist at the Exploratorium. “The field of social psychology seeks to understand how people think and feel about, relate to, and influence one another. An improved understanding of these processes in their own lives can help people recognize that broader social problems are often precipitated by beliefs or values upon which we act. Social science-based solutions that target human thought and behavior are needed to meet some of the most urgent global challenges we are facing today.”

Community members employed by Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit organization that works with formerly-incarcerated citizens to bring a sense of peace and respect to urban public spaces, will help facilitate the interactive experiences, and will serve as mediators and caretakers of the space.

“Urban Alchemy is honored to partner with the Exploratorium on this installation,” said Lena Miller, Executive Director of Urban Alchemy. “Middle Ground captures and creates an evolved social narrative about the invaluable role of former long-term offenders who harness redemption and service to create safe public spaces. These community members can act as the connective tissue between neighbors, housing insecure, workers, tourists, and individuals struggling with mental illness.” 

Middle Ground is funded by a National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning grant and Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation. A ribbon-cutting ceremony and opening event will take place on August 13. For more information, contact the Exploratorium Press Office at media@exploratorium.edu.

About San Francisco Public Library 

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San Francisco Public Library is dedicated to free and equal access to information, knowledge, independent learning and the joys of reading for our diverse community. The library system is made up of 27 neighborhood branches, the San Francisco Main Library at Civic Center and four bookmobiles.

About San Francisco Planning 

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The San Francisco Planning Department, under the direction of the Planning Commission, plays a central role in shaping the future of our City by generating an extraordinary vision for the General Plan and in neighborhood plans; fostering exemplary design through planning controls; improving our surroundings through environmental analysis; preserving our unique heritage; encouraging a broad range of housing and a diverse job base; and enforcing the Planning Code. For more information, visit sfplanning.org.


About the Exploratorium

The Exploratorium is a portal to the astonishing scientific phenomena that animate our world and shape our actions. We create extraordinary learning experiences that ignite curiosity, upend perceptions, and inspire brave leaps forward. Since 1969, the Exploratorium’s museum at Pier 15 in San Francisco has been home to a renowned collection of exhibits that draw together science, art, and human perception, and that have helped change the way science is taught. Our award-winning programs provide a forum for the public to engage with artists, scientists, policy-makers, educators, and tinkerers to explore the world around them. We celebrate diversity of thought, inspired investigation, and collaboration across all boundaries. 

Open Hours : Open 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m Tuesday through Sunday; 6:00–10:00 p.m. every Thursday night (ages 18+). Closed Mondays except select Monday holidays. Easily accessible by BART and Muni. Ample parking nearby. For directions. For tickets and pricing information.

July 22, 2019