A New Discovery Zone

The Rhode Island Museum of Science and Art

by by Maggie Lange

illustration by by Robert Sandler

The Rhode Island Museum of Art and Science (RIMOSA) is a nonprofit that calls itself a ‘wall-less’ museum. For now, the museum’s founders travel around the state, to schools, events, and festivals. Their installations are mesmerizing: colorful sand that drizzles through sieves to create a flow of amazing patterns, a inexplicable bubble-machine—as if Willy Wonka and Bill Nye the Science Guy were asked to collaborate. The experiments have an impressionistic combination of art and science: the visuals are stunning, there is some principle at work, but no heavy-handed message is forced upon the participant. These installations have been at WaterFire, FooFest, and most recently at Slater Mill.

But RIMOSA’s nomad status is short-lived. Their Board of Directors—a dozen accomplished educators, scientists, and artists—are in the midst of looking for a home, and they plan on setting up a full-fledged museum with four walls in the next five years.

Bonnie Epstein is the founder and CEO of RIMOSA. She received a Biology and Geology degree from Brown, and then a PhD in Oceanography from the University of Rhode Island. Since then, she has taught everything from elementary school science to a course called “Environmental Disasters” at RISD. Bonnie sat down with The Independent to explain why art and science should be combined, and what she envisions for RIMOSA’s next step. —Maggie Lange

The Independent: So, why art and science together?

Bonnie Epstein: Well, both my parents were physicians, so I grew up knowing about science—I always knew how things like digestion worked, but I was always very drawn to art. I love that it is literally creative, that you are supposed to start with raw materials and come up with something beautiful or interesting.

When I was a grad student in science, many of my friends took pottery, and wove, or painted. From the scientist’s side, I’ll say that they never saw themselves cut off from art. But I fear that artists feel that they are cut off from science.

Indy: What are examples that you have seen of artists who feel cut off from science?

BE: When I taught at RISD, I learned that artists had the same attitude about science that I had had about art—some of them had always been interested in science. I knew a lot of scientists that had been torn between choosing a career in art or science, and they decided to continue with science, because who has ever heard of a starving scientist? However, I think that there are a bunch of people who had come down on the side of art. Really, it’s unfortunate that we force people to choose one direction.

Indy: Do you see art and science as inspiring each other?

BE: Definitely. I wish that I could have said I thought of this on my own, but it’s based on the San Francisco Exploratorium, which I visited when I was fifteen. It has the same feel as MoMA—but with less on the wall and this invitation to play with it, and there was science involved.

Indy: Did it feel forced at all?

BE: The pairing of science and art is natural if we think about the beginnings of both. What is the passion the fuels them? The ability to observe the world and ask questions about it—to ask questions and to experiment.

Indy: You think that their minds work in similar ways?

BE: Some scientists are very logical… but the true breakthroughs, and people who look at things in very different ways, have the minds of artists. You know quarks—that is absolutely a crazy idea! Subatomic particles… seeing a bug stuck in amber, and wondering how to figure it out.

Indy: And you hope that RIMOSA will stimulate this curiosity?

BE: It’s this wondering I want to encourage. The installations we set up—like a cool table that allows you to play with gears and a mesmerizing sand in a sieve—aren’t supposed to have any end goal or resolution. Video games, games where you can win them, don’t have this thrill of endless permutations.

Indy: What has inspired you to do this?

BE: The thing about formal scientific education right now is that it’s about transmission. You know: I give you the facts, then please tell them back to me on a test. Teachers just don’t have the time or resources for anything else. The fact is, kids can ace the tests and then not remember a thing. I admire science teachers hugely—they have a difficult job because they don’t have the time.

Indy: What would be a better way to teach about science?

BE: The way kids learn best is by letting them play and experiment on their own. Kids remember what they discover for themselves. It’s that joy of discovery, this moment of “I did this!” You can see it, they show all their friends, and they are the discoverer and the teacher.

Indy: Based on your observation at other science museums, like San Francisco’s Exploratorium, how do kids behave?

BE: When you bring kids to a science museum they fan out. Then you hear, ‘Hey, come look at what I found.’ You can see the discovery. I remember, there was a little boy explaining to anyone that would come by how his exhibit works. He had total ownership.
There is also the inter-group communication—this is proven by studies. These museums promote intercommunication between families and from kid to kid, even kids that don’t know each other.

Indy: And what about learning on an individual level?

BE: It gives kids a chance to work something out by themselves, rather than a parent or teacher telling them how things work. It’s about experimentation and learning—that hard work is necessary. They might not know the names of the concepts that they are learning, but they are looking at the natural world and how it works.

Indy: What age group are you really targeting?

BE: The Providence Children’s museum does a good job with the early stuff, but the 11 and up group won’t ever see it. But in Rhode Island, the cultural attitude is that the children’s museum does a great job and they think ‘we’re good!’ I think that it’s never too early to start, but there is also no good age to stop.

Indy: So is this really for eleven and up—adults included?

BE: Adults love the exhibit as well. We have our Board test each exhibit before it happens to make sure they are interested. Also, we make sure the height of the exhibits and the information in the signage are geared towards older children.

Indy: Tell me about the debate on location for this museum.

BE: I’m deciding between Providence and Pawtucket. Both are urban, accessible, and both have this creative, funky, museum-y culture.

Indy: And your plan now is to prove the success of your projects so that you can interest investors?

BE: Yes, that’s why we are wall-less. We got great advice from the New York Hall of Science, who said that we had to prove our concepts first. No one will offer anything to crazy people with an idea.

Indy: How have you been proving this?

BE: We have been proving our success at places like Waterfire and Foo Fest. There, we actually get some numbers and can do evaluations. It’s not just enough to have good photos, but metrics, ages, how long people are spending there. Then we can be attractive to funding. Don’t just say you can do it, prove you can. We have to prove we are a feasible, attractive non-profit. We can move in but we are going to need a little help with our rent, and that’s where this proof will help us out.

MAGGIE LANGE B’11 says it and proves it.