Wednesday, March 4, 2009

INTERVIEW: Discovery World's Paul Krajniak

By Aisha Motlani
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Two of the things I find most exasperating about Discovery World also happen to be the very qualities that make it shine. The first is that there’s no hand-holding here. Signage, when it exists, avoids exhaustive explanations of how the various contraptions housed in the museum work. A beguiling element of mystery remains, a gap that the visitor must fill in on his own initiative – or “triangulate information” as Discovery World’s  delightful  Executive Director Pauk Krajniak might phrase it.

This principle of self-guided exploration can sit uneasily with those of us raised on the conventional and easily digestible wisdoms meted out by most of our educational institutions in the name of “user friendliness.” This ignoble term has been the undoing of many a learned institution that has had to lay itself at feet of a society increasingly reliant on specialists to tell them what to think. It takes an effort to haul yourself off the hamster wheel and take those first faltering steps towards independent enquiry, and it seems Discovery World’s mission is to prompt you to do just that. Call it a well-meaning boot up the arse of mental inertia.

Another of its eccentricities is the amorphous nature of the exhibits housed here. They range in levels of completion, some elements appear entirely inoperable. The museum is a work in progress, still ironing out the wrinkles, still learning to get comfortable in its own rather rigidly defined skin. As new permanent exhibits arrive the museum directors are in a good position to profit from trial and error to draw on the museum’s strengths. The question is – do they? Last week I went to see the new-ish Energy and Ingenuity exhibit. You can read my review later, either in this blog or in the next issue’s A and E gateway feature.

In the meantime, here’s an interview with Krajniak following the walkthrough he conducted of the exhibit.

AM: During the walk through you described part of the exhibit as “very theatrical in a world fair kind of way.” Can you explain that analogy?
PK: The idea of the world fair was to present innovations and technologies at a really grand scale that would clearly demonstrate the point of an exhibit – lots of automated animated features  in essence working like a living booklet or diorama. This approach holds a lot of power when everything isn’t like that.”

AM: What do you think about the direction contemporary museums are going in terms of interactive set ups?

PK: Contemporary view of museum experience is to focus on what people are about, what they think. And as two approaches that bookend the experience the result can be very exciting. You need to offer varying stimulus for different audience. When working with self-guided auto didactic exploration. Books give you unparalleled knowledge but an exhibit like this lends you motivation to seek out more. In terms of the development of any program, you need to turn back to desires of people. They want to be in the know and be able to use that knowledge in their own lifestyle and interest. Being divergent is very important in an environment like this but sometimes you also have to combine that with being more convergent.”
 
AM: Explain the difference between divergent and convergent in this context.
Divergent means for example: how many ways can you cut the grass or how many different ways you can design a hat and requires looking things in multiple ways. Convergent is how much energy is that light-bulb using. People need a combination of both approaches, to both be equipped with knowledge and also to be provided tools to ask questions. Knowledge is important but what you do with it can be more difficult to understand

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