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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Discovering Electricity

Nikola Tesla comes alive

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Discovery World Executive Director Paul Krajniak bristles at the term "museum" when applied to his institution. He prefers the term "accelerator," and two new developments contribute quite literally to its energetic buzz. One is "Energy and Ingenuity," an interactive exploration of energy and its uses. The other is "Tesla Lives!," a live theater show about the 19th- and 20th-century innovator Nikola Tesla.

"The exhibition provides an arena where visitors enjoy a self-guided exploration. The Tesla show explains the physics behind some of these concepts through storytelling," Krajniak explains. "A narrative approach allows you to compose the experience and guide the audience. In the exhibit you can compose your own meaning in a way more in tune with contemporary technology and communication like the Internet."

The "Energy and Ingenuity" exhibit is located on the second floor of Discovery World's technology wing. Its roughly 1,200-square-foot space is composed of three main parts, the most dominant being a gauzy form resembling a giant unfurling onion. Inside is a workable large-scale model of a Westinghouse nuclear reactor. Beside it is the Energy House, a model dwelling that incorporates green technology and materials. At the far end, the Energy Spine offers visitors the opportunity to play with electricity, by either setting their hair on end using the static generator or running on two hamster wheels that generate electricity. A tank of electric eels demonstrates alternative sources of energy existing in nature; another tank shows how energy is extracted from water.

So far the exhibit demonstrates some of the uses of these energy sources, as well as their economic and environmental impact, and also highlights aesthetic and sensory concerns. It's less successful at showing how the waste resulting from them can be stored or disposed of. Nevertheless Discovery World is constantly evolving. One can imagine future components elaborating on the exhibit's key ideas.

Like other exhibits here, "Energy and Ingenuity" also displays a refreshing lack of hand-holding. Although signage is present, it's rather abstract, which may sit uneasily with those of us accustomed to the "user-friendly" gesticulations of many modern institutions. For me it represents one of Discovery World's best qualities, leaving more room for individual interpretation.

Techno Drama

The Tesla show (and to a lesser extent the "Energy and Ingenuity" exhibit) introduces an element of drama to the facility. The mock nuclear reactor uses dramatic sound and lighting to create an experience that Krajniak describes as "very theatrical in a world-fair kind of way." When pressed to elaborate, he explains, "The idea of the world fair was to present innovations and technologies at a really grand scale-lots of automated, animated features in essence working like a living booklet or diorama."

"Tesla Lives!" plays up the scientist's theatrical flair, delivering a winning combination of history lesson, comic routine and stunning science show. There's even a bit of live animation thrown in for good measure-a cross between a public service announcement and an SNL digital short. The semicircular stage Krajniak aptly describes as a "diorama activated by performer" resembles a cross between a science lab, an occult lair and a pulpit from which actor Andy North poses as Tesla delivering his historic Chicago World's Fair public address. The audience is treated to a number of intriguing demonstrations capped by the show-stopping finale where North sits in a cage calmly reading a newspaper while being assailed by huge bolts of electricity.

However, the main point is to highlight a genius greatly overshadowed by his contemporaries. Stories of underdogs have perennial appeal, especially one as enigmatic and intriguing as Tesla. Tesla has remained a captivating figure, helped in part by David Bowie's magisterial performance as the scientist in Chris Nolan's film The Prestige. Not unlike the Milwaukee Art Museum's current Jan Lievens show, "Tesla Lives!" pits one master against the other: Tesla versus Edison. It stands the risk of casting the opponent in a bad light. However, Heidi Heistad, the producer of the show, feels the unflattering portrayal of Edison is well deserved. "We rely on the facts. The smear campaign Edison leveled against Tesla did a lot of damage," she says. Understandably, the show doesn't dwell on Tesla's own foibles, or the sinister "death beam" he's accredited with inventing in the 1930s.

"Culture goes through phases where it starts questioning, 'Why are things like this, or where did this come from?' Tesla's time is coming about now," Heistad says. Indeed, the 21st century has seen a number of books, documentaries, Web sites and memorials dedicated to the overlooked genius. Lotus even named an electric roadster after him in 2006. Then there's that Nolan film attenuating his mysterious repute and occult aura. For Heistad, Tesla is a natural for Discovery World, an embodiment of the virtues it aspires to.

"I think learning doesn't have to happen in a silo. People need to know not everything is solved, not everything is rational, but that they can still be inspired," she says. "We can look to Tesla for inspiration."

Both exhibits are permanent. For information on "Tesla Lives!" running times, go to www.discoveryworld.org

2009-03-11

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