Graduate student stipends aren’t anything that will fill coffers to the brim, and since Kierstin has started her graduate education and credential program, we are one income less than before. So, for our anniversary this year, we decided to skip gifts (for the most part) and treat each other to a ticket into a Los Angeles museum we each have been wanting to visit; my choice: California Science Center, Kierstin’s choice: Museum of Tolerance.
I spent a little time volunteering at a small science center while in Davis. I had just quit my job as a quality control lab technician and was looking forward to moving to Santa Barbara. I knew transitioning from 40+ hour work weeks to lazy days with nothing to do would be difficult and restless. I found out about Explorit through a little online research and offered my services as a patron liaison. Visitors of all ages, from 1 to 100, would come in and explore scientific concepts through hands-on displays and activities. The ideals Explorit values rhyme with my own worldviews, and I would recommend it to anyone in the area with kids interested in science. While Explorit was a great resource for a small community like Davis, it doesn’t hold a candle to the California Science Center; I mean, it’s hard to compare with a place that houses a bona fide space shuttle.
Endeavour completed its final mission, Mission 26, in 2012. Mission 26 is what they called the 68-hour, 12 mile journey that the 78 feet by 57 feet by 122 feet monster of a vehicle embarked on through the streets of LA to reach the science center. Videos at the center show++–ed the wings of the craft brushing against trees, barely squeezing through narrow city streets (sometimes having to zigzag to avoid light posts and street signs), and careful, slow turns that involved a single degree change at a time. The sight of the shuttle was unbelievable. It almost looked like a prop, and it is so massive that it’s incredible to imagine how humans went from almost nothing into the sky just over 100 years ago to these giants of metal and polymer zooming out of the atmosphere. Black insulation tiles and white surface tiles protect the outside of the vessel from burning up upon reentry. The humongous aircraft had an American flag plastered on the side, waiting to be saluted and sang to in honor of the amazing scientific achievement the shuttle represents.
NASA’s space shuttle fleet was officially retired in 2011, making way for opportunities in innovation for space travel. The shuttle’s vastness is no longer necessary; most modern space missions involve bussing astronauts to the International Space Station, which the compact Russian Soyuz currently handles much more efficiently. The exhibit at the California Science Center included summaries of all 135 shuttle flights with special tribute paid to the unfortunate fates of the Challenger and Columbia. While the displays for the successful missions featured blue backgrounds and colored pictures of the astronauts on board, the displays for Challenger and Columbia were black-and-white, a solemn reminder of these tragic events. I’ve read, heard, and seen so much about these missions (especially Challenger) that upon viewing these exhibits, I couldn’t help but feel strong emotions well up inside me. I was glad that the placards would serve as a reminder to all of the sacrifice that these astronauts made but sad that the series of mistakes and accidents could have such terrible consequences.
After visiting Endeavour, we explored the rest of the center. Surprisingly, the center is free. It was $2 to make a reservation to see Endeavour, but it was well worth it. I think even a gate fee wouldn’t have been asking too much; after seeing Endeavour, we visited a touch aquarium, examined creepy crawlers, explored various habitats and ecosystems (deserts and deep sea and frigid Antarctica), saw exhibits showing the progression from paper and wood flying machines to the aluminum eagles we have today, and briefly investigated the world of tomorrow. There were other exhibits that cost a couple bucks, like the trapeze bicycle for visitors to strap themselves in and pedal on a one-inch cable 43 feet above the floor below. They had a realistic exhibit for Pompeii, the well-preserved ancient city once buried below the ash of Mount Vesuvius (a Plinian volcano, if you recall). There was an IMAX theater playing a documentary about the Hubble Telescope. We missed out on all of these activities, but they would be something I’d love to try in the future.
We stumbled upon a little indoor food court almost across the street from the center, Mercado La Poloma. Various food vendors filled the building located in a somewhat dilapidated neighborhood. We chose Thai and sat down, only to be surprised by some traditional Mexican entertainment. Young boys and girls dressed in old-fashioned Mexican garb came marching between the tables while Mexican folk music blared through the speakers. Children as young as 5 or 6 wore brightly colored ruffled dresses and all-white pressed pants and button up shirts, dancing together and stamping their feet in unison. It was another nice unexpected form of entertainment to accompany our meal, something that apparently has been happening to us lately.
Our next stop was Kierstin’s choice. She has a minor in history and took a lot of courses on World War II. Her favorite books are historical fiction, often letting the genre transform her into an American soldier or a Holocaust victim. Documentaries covering the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime are always her first choice when we have an itch to watch something educational. When we moved to Santa Barbara, she told me about the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which has an extensive collection of stories from Holocaust survivors and a comprehensive tour through time of the Holocaust.
It was immediately apparent how controversial this issue is for some; Holocaust denial is relatively rife in the Gaza Strip area, and there are more divisive issues that the museum highlights as well. As a result, the museum has security at the gates, a mandatory license check, and a car search – all of these acting as an initial commentary on the unfortunate world we live in today. No cameras were allowed either, perhaps as another security measure. Thankfully, there have been no accounts of attacks on the MoT, but it doesn’t seem farfetched to imagine the threats they might receive.
We walked in to a beautiful, pristine lobby and headed downstairs to the Holocaust exhibit. Tours are self-led with a recorded guide assisted by cleverly-timed lighting. We chose two cards, two Holocaust victims, who would let us immerse ourselves into the tour. Instead of Kierstin and Michael, we were Freda Gabe and Hansgeorge Isaac; not just names but real children who suffered through those terrible times. The tour showed us the rise of Hitler, asking and showing how someone who is regarded today as an immoral, malicious being could come to power. A faux café scene investigated the viewpoints of regular citizens; accounts of doctors and soldiers were read as typical conversations these people might have had at the time. We ended our tour as millions may have had their lives ended; we walked through narrow brick tunnels into a small concrete bunker with gas pipes overhead. It was the second somber moment of the day.
The other part of the museum highlighted modern atrocities with viewpoints on all sides, but ultimately, the point the MoT was trying to make was clear. Terrible things have happened to everyone, and only our awareness and education can give us the chance to step back and analyze our decisions. Mostly, as the museum had plastered on the wall the end of the Holocaust tour, “Hope lives when people remember.”