When Merrick Fuller stands up straight he is still a few inches shy of the top of the square glass display at the center of miSci’s new exhibit. So he peers through the side, where he can see three different shapes.
One looks like a chair. It’s white and delicate and strung up by thin wires. Another looks like a chair, but something is off about it. It’s distorted and wouldn’t sit anyone comfortably. The last shape is a jumble of white shapes, unconnected and in disarray.
Stepping around to the front of the display, the 6-year-old boy peers into a tiny constellation of holes. He moves to the right and peers into another set of holes. He shuffles over to the last set of holes, the one that gives him a direct view of the jumble of shapes that resembled nothing.
It’s a chair. The same white chair he saw through the other peepholes.
“I knew that two of them were not totally shaped right,” he says, “but then it looked like they were.”
Some call it a trick of the eye. And miSci is now full of them. The exhibit is called “Seeing” and features 30 interactive stations that play tricks on the brain by way of the eyes. It’s the largest traveling exhibit the museum has ever hosted, and it opened to the public Saturday as the latest step in transforming the former Schenectady Museum into a regional science center.
The exhibit embodies what the new Museum of Innovation and Science is trying to capture — the wonders of science and plenty of hands-on exhibits to enhance the visitor experience.
“Seeing” is one of five exhibits that San Francisco’s Exploratorium is sending to several museums across the country. Museum officials started working about a year ago to bring it here, and about a week ago a 53-foot semi-trailer arrived in Schenectady with the goods.
National Grid and local philanthropists Neil and Jane Golub financed the first of five world-class exhibits that will be rolled out at miSci over the next five years. Museum officials received on-site training from Exploratorium staff on the different parts of the exhibit.
“We didn’t want to change the name and have people come out and see the same museum,” said miSci archivist Chris Hunter.
It’s been nearly two months since they rolled out the new name, logo, vision and mission.
On opening day of the new exhibit, Jen Fuller and Bill Price soaked in the new with the familiar. Merrick Fuller skipped around his mom and grandfather Saturday as they scanned the entirety of the new exhibit.
“It always has been primarily a science museum,” said Price, 66, who returned to his longtime home of Glenville for a month, just one of many stops he and his wife are making as full-time RVers.
Price worked for General Electric in Schenectady for nearly four decades as an electrical engineer. When he heard that the Schenectady Museum had changed its name he worried it would get rid of his favorite history exhibits on GE and the American Locomotive Company.
“It looks like they continue to emphasize that technical history, though,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s changing that much. Maybe the name just never conveyed the fact that it was, in fact, a science and technology museum.”
The last time his daughter visited the museum was around Christmas two years ago for a train exhibit. She’s cultivated the same appreciation her parents have for museums and passed it on to her son. Together, they’ve visited The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the Museum of Science in Boston, to name a few.
“Penn Museum,” Merrick said excitedly and with wide eyes. “Penn Museum was one of my favorite museums. You get to do fun things and see things.”
He had already tried out Hunter’s favorite exhibit: Hoop Nightmares.
It looks like a basic arcade-style basketball game. But when someone first puts on a pair of prism glasses and tries to make a hoop, they shoot too far to the left. As they continue to make shots, their brain will naturally adjust hand-eye coordination so that they overcompensate and shoot to the right.
Accuracy improves. Glasses come off. The person takes a shot, and now they’re throwing too far to the right.
“This is one of the favorites with the kids,” said Hunter, who describes the game as a science lesson in prism distortion. The brain adjusts to what the eyes see.
“At these exhibits, learn why seeing may be believing for each of us, even though we can’t always believe what we see,” reads a miSci description of the exhibit.
The Spinning Eraser exhibit makes shapes disappear when they are still there. The Change Blindness exhibit turns a black sedan into a blue minivan, and the transformation goes unnoticed even as you stare straight at it.
The overall exhibit makes visitors question what they know about objective reality and illuminates the relationship between brain and eye.
Megan Dominguez gets a kick out of the chair exhibit. In her 12 years working at the museum, the education manager is excited about what the exhibit does for miSci’s new mission.
“It’s so much more of a hands-on experience,” she said.
“It’s not a ‘put your hands in your pocket and don’t touch anything’ experience. This is definitely the largest number of interactive exhibits we’ve ever had on the floor at one time.”
Near the Spinning Eraser, two little girls bounce over to opposite sides of a Plexiglas wall and take a seat.
The older of the two starts to draw on the glass with a marker.
“Are you ready for today’s lesson?” she says, with a tilt of the head and expectant smile.