For Chabot space center’s creative director, exhibits always evolving
By Lou Fancher
When Tracy Corado follows her usual route along the streets of Rockridge to reach her frequent destinations, Market Hall and Highwire Coffee Roasters in particular, she appreciates the walkable design.
It’s everywhere: the tree-lined avenue, the window displays and signage of local shops, restaurants, bars, art galleries and other small businesses. Corado is highly attuned to light, from dappled sunlight pushing through foliage to the way it illuminates the faces of friends and strangers who call out greetings regardless of familiarity.
“Rockridge makes you want to walk not out of necessity, but just for its design and neighborliness,” Corado says about her neighborhood.
Unsurprisingly, Corado is the Chabot Space & Science Center’s creative director and leads the Oakland hills museum’s new in-house design studio. Born in North Hollywood and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, she spent much of her young adult life in Long Beach.
“The arts and culture and Long Beach being a port city — I think of all that as similar to Oakland. They share a meshing of races and ethnicities, creativity, expressiveness. The natural environment is different, from beaches to redwoods, but I feel at home here, despite being in a different city.”
Corado, 32, holds a B.F.A. in interior design from CSU Long Beach and an M.F.A in exhibition design from UC Davis. Before moving to Rockridge, she developed commercial interior architectural projects and worked as a postgraduate intern with the Getty Center’s design team in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t go to a ton of museums growing up,” she said. “When I was first at the Getty at age 21 as a visitor, the art was beautiful, elegant. Then at age 30 for the internship, I went behind the scenes. Seeing the work that goes on was fascinating. It changed my ideas entirely.
“I was able to understand for each painting on the wall or object displayed the amount of work, the number of people, the shipping protocols, the conservation work that ensures it’s preserved, the science behind presenting each item.”
Corado has brought her approach to exhibition design to the Chabot center. Knowing the fast pace of scientific discoveries in space results in “new news” each day. Rather than developing an exhibit for a year — or more — and displaying it as-is for five years, she believes museums must be more nimble.
“That means you can come, see the exhibit, and the next time you come, there’s something different. It’s a constantly evolving thing.”
Chabot center exhibits are often hands-on playgrounds, with interactive elements that take complex subjects and tell relatable stories while providing activities that teach science concepts while using simple objects and materials connected to everyday life. Those materials are more often than in the past likely to be lower-cost, durable or to capitalize on the impermanence and flexibility of digital representations or projected imagery.
Corado said the current “Astrolight” exhibit at the Chabot center (chabotspace.org/visit/exhibits/astrolight), for example, explores the mysteries of light and concepts behind NASA’s Hubble and James Webb space telescopes by using three large acrylic “ripple tanks” that each hold a half-inch of water.
“Visitors play with objects in the tanks, like small square blocks. They move them and make waves, which they see because light is projected from below. We saw that visitors started making creative, beautiful waves — tapping the exterior side of the tanks to make square wave shapes. It was not something we expected, but it added so much more to the experience. Now we’re thinking about creative ways to make waves.”
Corado said the wonderful thing about science museums with adaptability built into their designs is that they’re able to expand people’s curiosity by encouraging them to bring pre-existing interests and have fun.
“We offer varied ways of learning: There are quiet, interactive, listening displays, not just kinetic and active ones. People bring who they are into the museum, and we want to engage them wherever they are.”
In thinking and working with her colleagues on the design team, Corado said the considerations center on how visitors may feel and different learning styles as often as on aesthetics.
“One thing I do is think about the people even before they enter the gallery. With ‘Astrolight,’ you’re greeted by a dark area that’s illuminated by only a large-scale galaxy so you’re surrounded by starlight. Even the graphics communicate with light cast through a cutout that projects a shadow and the word ‘Astrolight’ illuminated on the wall. In another area, we create things like ‘Revealed by Shadows’ that uses a double projector to project one image and then washes it out with light.
“For adults who learn best running around and using energy, we cater to their playing with their own image in this space. Others who are quieter and more observational might go to ‘Polarized Light,’ landscapes where visitors put everyday objects like cups and goggles in regular light and then view them behind polarized lenses. They see how that reveals unseen patterns and effects in the objects.”
Light can be common and mysterious at the same time, making it an obvious choice as a centerpiece for an exhibit at the Chabot center.
“We interact with it every day, and it reveals so much about the universe. Do we understand it? How do telescopes work? How can there be light you can’t see because it’s beyond the visual spectrum? How do mirrors reflect light or lenses bend and distort it? Chabot’s microscopes use curved lenses to collect light and magnify distant planets and other objects. The exhibit presents experiments so visitors can view their distorted reflections or interact with altered light.”
Asked about future plans at the Chabot, Corado said she’s looking forward to creating more fast-paced, interactive exhibits that incorporate the latest space news.
“It’s a model that has potential to become valuable because space exploration and science relates to our lives on Earth. It’s not just history, it’s what’s happening right now. By showing advances and who is doing them, we show people how they might be included in it. It offers awareness of possibilities and limitless potential for what can be explored and discovered.”