Please feel free to share your memories, thoughts and remembrances here.
NOTE – If you would like to add a remembrance please email them to rememberingsally [at] gmail [dot] com.
Please feel free to share your memories, thoughts and remembrances here.
NOTE – If you would like to add a remembrance please email them to rememberingsally [at] gmail [dot] com.
I first met Sally face-to-face in 1999 when I joined the At-Bristol project as the new PM. She was an advisor to the development team. From the first moment we spoke it was clear she was one of those people who lights up the World with their enthusiasm and gifts. Her council and knowledge during that project – and in every other time we bumped into each other down the years – left me with a profound sense of gratitude for having been fortunate enough to know her. She was a big spirit and a kind soul. The ripples she made in life are still moving in this World.
Sally was such a part of the Exploratorium and its extension to the world beyond its walls, that it is hard to imagine our world going forward without her joyful spirit. Throughout our time working together at the Exploratorium I was always struck by her genuine inquisitiveness, her adventurous nature, her kindness and humanity and her unbridled enthusiasm. We worked together on early projects to spread the Exploratorium’s philosophy beyond the museum’s walls and I was always in awe of her amazing social ability to bring together so many different people effectively into the Exploratorium’s internal and chaotic culture. She excelled in teaching, building exhibits, connecting with scientists, and museum exhibit developers and her legacy can be seen all over the current exhibit floor. Through her deep understanding of what made the Exploratorium tick and her natural interest in learning in cultural diverse settings she became a valuable collaborator with projects all over the world. She really was the true Exploratorium evangelist, and as she spread the story with her personal charm, wit and insight to institutions and individuals worldwide, she really was one of the main reasons that the Exploratorium has been able to have the impact it has had. We will miss her in many ways but for me I will really miss her laugh and her curiosity.
A few days before she passed away, Sally and I talked about curiosity. She was going through the most difficult time of her life, being so directly confronted with the fragility of being human. In that occasion she told me how the difference between life and death, between being alive and letting it go, is curiosity.
That conversation has stayed in my mind ever since. It was “pure Sally” – with that unconditional desire to look further, to be indeed curious and to instil curiosity in others.
Sally was unashamedly curious. Many of us will always remember how Sally would often talk about some research she had read and about conversations she had with some amazing people, scientists, educators, artists. She had this unique capacity of being really curious about so many fields of knowledge and of being able to reflect that curiosity upon us. She made us wanting to go further, to establish even more connections and have more of those inspiring, brilliant conversations.
Sally was never, ever, negative about a situation, an organisation, and most importantly, about other people. Her optimism to find good in any circumstance was unique. It was not for lack of critical sense. On the contrary, Sally was well aware of what wasn’t right. But the deep respect she always had for others was so strong that it superseded anything else.
Her sense of respect was the ultimate form of purity. Sally was untouched by envy, jealousy, or big egos. She became fundamental to so many people and institutions, always maintaining her unassuming attitude which is now a model for us to live up to.
It has been an immense pleasure sharing so much of my life with you Sally.
She is my dear cousin who I always admired from a distance. I was blessed to spend quality time with her at her Paris apartment in October 2011 for a few days. We had a blast!!! I will always treasure the opportunity to get to know more about this wonderful lady who is part of my family. She made me want to ask more questions in life. In fact, she helped me formulate them! I will always be indebted to her and already miss her so much. God bless you, Sally! You were my angel.
We met too infrequently over the last years. The last time, at leisure was at Richard Gregory’s memorial event at the Royal Institution. And then, again very fleetingly, this, June in Trento,Italy.
They are so many fond memories of Sally. It started with her being one of my mentors and very first contacts at the Exploratorium in 1990. It makes me smile — no E-mail at the time — her letters addressed me as “Dr. Besio”.
The first time we met in person was at the very first ECSITE conference in spring/summer 1990 in Holland, less than 100 people attending! During standing pre-dinner drinks, I proudly mentioned to some colleagues that I had just booked “Art from the Exploratorium”. Little Sally overheard it and instantly shot at me “What do you mean? Can’t be!” That’s how we met.
A few weeks later, when I visited “Heureka” the Science Center in Helsinki on a Sunday morning, we literally bumped into each other—crazy coincidence—and had a great time, and laughs, talking shop about exhibits…Sally the expert, myself just a rookie.
In 1997 (?) I invited her to join me for about one week in Winterthur at Technorama to help me with a concept for “Perception”.
As a mentor, she ranks to me among the likes of Frank Oppenheimer (whom I did not know), Richard Gregory, Paul Doherty. Her tenets had always been superb guidelines in my work, I’ve used them again and again, like gospel, often in disputes with smartasses who thought they new better. Her “basics” backed by solid experience, were and are timeless treasures for people trying to do a good job in a science center.
May she rest in peace.
Former Executive Director
This is the obituary that I have written for the University of Bristol
Sally Duensing, Visiting Professor in the GSoE from 2005-2010, passed away last week after a lengthy hospitalisation. Sally had an international reputation for her work in science engagement and communication and held the Collier Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at the University from 1999-2001.
Sally graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Social Science in 1971 and two years later gained her elementary teaching credentials from the same institution. Sally took up a post at the San Francisco Exploratorium, perhaps the best-known hands/minds-on science centre in the world. She was one of the first elementary teachers and teacher educators in what was known then as the School in the Exploratorium. Sally spent 25 years at the Exploratorium and the Director, Dennis Bartels, described her as ‘an Exploratorium legend’ adding that ‘her work and legacy touches nearly every person who works at the Exploratorium’.
During her time at the Exploratorium, Sally carried out research and developed exhibitions including the famous ‘Cheshire Cat’ exhibit. In 1993 she was awarded the Museum Educator’s Award for Excellence by the American Association of Museums. In 1999 she completed her doctorate – a case study looking at cultural influences on science museum practices – at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Sally moved to Bristol to take up the Collier Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at the University in 1999 and in 2001 became Director of the Center for Informal Learning and Schools at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a position she held for three years. Sally was appointed a Visiting Professor in the GSoE from 2005-2010 and she held a similar appointment at King’s College London.
Professionally, Sally was highly influential in her field and she was highly respected throughout the world. As a person she possessed immense warmth and charm. Sally had an infectious enthusiasm for her work and shared her considerable experience and wisdom generously. She leaves many happy memories and her influence will last for many years. But her loss at a relatively young age is heart-breaking to all who knew her.
Head, Graduate School of Education
Shortly after leaving academia and entering the science center field at Chicago’s MSI in 1979, I spent two weeks as a Fellow at the Exploratorium. That became my introduction to Sally, who served as a caring and enthusiastic mentor. In this way and so many others, she contributed greatly to the growth and professionalization of the field. She left us too soon.
I first met Sally at the MIT Image and Meaning Conference in 2001, where she shared images from museums around the world to get people thinking about how the physical layout of a museum shapes the way people perceive what’s in it. I remember how enthusiastic she was in talking about the power of images and physical constructs to affect how we perceive what’s around us and also remember thinking, if only my teachers growing up had such passion for teaching! She was obviously a leading thinker in the public engagement and museum world, but she talked to me like I was an old friend, even though I was new to the museum world, having only worked at the Exploratorium for a year, as a writer.
I saw her briefly over the years, but the last time I saw her was at a very special moment, in 2013, when the Exploratorium closed its doors to the public at the Palace of Fine Arts. It was a deeply emotional moment for everyone, including Sally. I was writing a piece about the move for KQED and asked Sally to share an early memory of the Exploratorium. She told me that Touch the Spring was her favorite exhibit even before she ever worked at the museum. She was just captivated by it, even though she couldn’t figure out what was going on at first. Finally she got it but that was only after she understood light ray diagrams.
“I remember telling Frank Oppenheimer that it would be really great to have an opening on the side where you could see a mirror and see what was going on,” she told me. “And he said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We have an explanatory exhibit, Shake Hands with Yourself, right next to it and you’ve got the ray diagram. And people get it from that.’ ”
She tried to convince Frank that people really didn’t get it, and needed a cue. But he wouldn’t let her cut a hole in it. “Then, probably ten years after he died, there was a hole cut in it,” Sally said. “But I didn’t do it!”
Sally realized that Frank understood the phenomenon so well that he found it hard to understand what others might not. Even in that brief encounter, Sally conveyed a deep appreciation of how to bridge the gap between scientists, who are so immersed in their fields, and nonexperts, who may be very smart but do not have the background to grasp a concept without appropriate context.
Sally’s generosity, passion and brilliance, a rare combination, were perfectly suited to the work she loved. I hope those dearest to her take comfort in knowing that her work and spirit lives on in the many hearts, minds and places she touched around the world.
Sally is an Exploratorium legend, and her work and legacy touches nearly every person who works at the Exploratorium, whether you knew her personally or not. She started as one of the first elementary teachers and teacher educators in what was known then as the School in the Exploratorium, and essentially grew up with the Exploratorium from it’s earliest days.
She introduced the Exploratorium to so many other legends, such as Richard Gregory and Oliver Sacks. She did original research and exhibit development, including our famous Cheshire Cat exhibit and our language learning section. She was the consummate Exploratorium Ambassador, showing hundreds of guests the behind the scenes special mix of the organization, and was instrumental in the original Kellogg Foundation Cookbooks and NSF Starter Sets programs, the prototypes of our Exhibit Services, ExNet, and now Global Studios programs. Even after she left the Exploratorium in the late 1990s, she remained very close to the organization, by assisting as a special instructor at UC Santa Cruz with the Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS) and the field through her international Science Center work, living in Paris for many years. You can see Sally in action from the famous Palace of Delights film and in countless archival images.
For those of us privileged to know Sally personally, there were few who matched her enthusiasm for the Exploratorium and exemplified it’s spirit of boundless curiosity and optimism, open-mindedness, and generosity of spirit for every human being she ever encountered. You felt instantly her friend, just by meeting her. Her curiosity extended to every kind of learner and world culture. I cannot begin to express my own sense of personal loss, having learned so many essential values, history and culture of the Exploratorium through Sally. The fact that she taught so many others about the idea of the Exploratorium — a notion that extends far beyond any particular place or time — leaves me with both great confidence and optimism that the idea, and Sally’s legacy, will live on for decades to come.
Sally was one of the first Exploratorium people I met when I was new to evaluation work some twenty-five years ago. She was so lovely, smart, funny, compassionate, and engaging, but she was never intimidating — she had a wonderful way of welcoming you into the beautiful space she inhabited. She was a passionate ambassador for the Exploratorium, and for the informal science education field. As an evaluator, working with her as the PI on projects was a real joy. On one project, she instituted joint PI-evaluator site visits — we zoomed off to west Texas and New Mexico with Melissa Alexander — and we all learned so much from what each of our different perspectives brought to the site visit. And on a project that did not go so well, at the end, she had a celebration/autopsy — we had cake and champagne, and all of us involved sat around a table discussing what had happened, what we learned from it, and how it would inform our future work. That conversation could have been fraught with difficulty, but under Sally’s careful guidance, it was wonderful. She was brilliant in every sense of the word.
Sally was my coach, my guide, a mentor.
Whenever I met with her at her desk I would comment on how nice her view was, for she always had a large print of Henri Matisse’s The Open Window hanging above her desk.
When trying to describe her to those who did not know her, I ask them to take a minute and listen to the Steelpan music she loved, and tell them “I am sure you will get the feeling of what it was like to be with her”.
I will miss her even though a part of Sally is alive in me every time I am on the museum floor with someone sharing an experience at an exhibit.
There was a sense of leisure about Sally. Real leisure. To the ancient Greeks, leisure, schola, wasn’t a time for doing nothing, but the opposite: the activity of being most fully human, together. And learning was part of that.
Sally was always showing up somewhere ready for conversation, ready to take a walk, to stop at a sidewalk cafe for a glass of wine, to buy a last-minute ticket to La Traviata in Prague – or to ride the boat to Capri in the rain. Knowing Sally was like having a wonderful playmate. Freeing. Flowing. Like those scarves she was always wearing. Months could go by when we weren’t in touch, but then we’d pick up again just where we’d left off.
I’d known her first as a partner in what she later called “exporting the Exploratorium.” It was 1980, and the Association of Science-Technology Centers had just gotten a grant from the National Science Foundation to support the dissemination of a collection of the Exploratorium’s light and color exhibits, called Looking at the Light. (The grant also enabled them to hire me.) As I understood it from my ASTC colleague Sheila Grinell, it wasn’t easy for the Exploratorium to agree to turn “working prototypes” into something you could rent for a few weeks. But part of the plan was that an emissary from the Exploratorium would go along, too, to help orient the host museum staff to what was then an unfamiliar approach. Sally was part of that early missionary work, which before long had helped to carry the idea for this new kind of museum around the whole world.
Our paths crossed many times after that. Even as the field, with its missionary fervor, turned from a movement into what some called an “industry,” Sally didn’t change. Without pretension, with the same smile for everyone, she met you right where you were, whether you were as famous as Oliver Sacks or someone she bumped into on the street.
During the early 1990s, we worked together again on a project called the Humanities Seminars in Science Museums. The National Endowment for the Humanities had given ASTC funding for a collaboration among several science museums with the “great books” school St. John’s College. Sally, with Melissa Alexander, led a group in the Bay Area that took on a reading program that was unconventional, to say the least. People who did all kinds of work in the participating museums were part of the seminar group there, who gathered periodically for a morning of conversation around a table with no one in the role of “expert,” and the only “teacher,” the text. One of the seminars, in October 1994, I believe, explored what learning is and how it happens, with Plato’s Meno as text. The world’s leading Plato scholar, Bernard Williams, and British actor and renaissance man Jonathan Miller, happened to be in residence at the time. From what Sally told us later, the British scholars were astounded by the quality of the conversation. That’s the kind of thing that seemed to happen when Sally was there. She was like a quiet catalyst who set things in motion, then entered into the experience, felt the joy along with you.
Sally’s birthday is in the middle of November. Somewhere along the line, we discovered that not only were we going through similar experiences with what someone once called “the marvelous dismantling of midlife,” but that we were born on very nearly the same day. In Trinidad, Sally told me once, people didn’t just silently hope someone would remember their birthday: they’d bring a cake to work, call everyone together to celebrate. That lovely open quality — not withholding anything, but always ready to give and, through giving, to create a greater sense of abundance: that was Sally. That is Sally, if we can hold her spirit, together, as we go forward without her living presence among us.
I was so sad to get the news of Sally Duensing’s death. She was too young, and (it seems) in a good place in her life, having recently returned to San Francisco and planning the next chapter.
I was lucky enough to work with Sally on several projects. It was challenging and satisfying and great fun. She was open to kicking around odd possibilities, stretching the boundaries of what a museum is and does. She liked to laugh. She treated everyone with genuine respect and a kind of sensitivity and empathy that I believe is a rare gift.
I feel especially lucky to have spent some time with Sally recently. When Oliver Sacks died, Susan Schwartzenberg arranged a dinner for a few of us who had worked with him. Sally arrived at the restaurant very short of breath, though she’d only walked a few blocks to get there. She said she’d had some health problems having to do with her treatment for Hodgkin’s many years ago, but was in good spirits and optimistic about her prognosis. Once she caught her breath she was her old self, and she and Susan and I got to catch up on recent events in our lives. We reminisced about Sacks, and then about projects that we collaborated on, our work at the Exploratorium and beyond. I have to say I was more than a little envious of all her travels and accomplishments in recent years.
Sally loved people and she loved ideas. I believe part of what made her extraordinary is that she loved both in equal measure. And so she naturally found herself hanging out with amazing people, Sacks and Richard Gregory and Elizabeth Loftus and V.S. Ramachandran and Lewis Hyde and Phil and Phyllis Morrison—the list goes on and on. I suppose she liked to schmooze a bit, but she always had her eye on what was important, always wanted to learn from the luminaries we brought in and to find a way to make their ideas and discoveries work in the context of the Exploratorium (and, later, other venues as well).
Sally’s love of ideas and science led her to original research on the cultural contexts of learning. Also, she and Bob Miller originated The Cheshire Cat exhibit, which is not only a spectacular science demo but an important discovery in the field of visual perception. I suspect many weren’t aware of these achievements—she was so outwardly focused, so keen to encourage others to hold forth and shine. Truly a kind and generous soul.
Sally was without a doubt, one of the few people I know whose attitude in life so reflected my favorite quote, attributed to my forefather Plutarch: “Minds are not vessels to be filled, but fires to be lighted.”
Those fires will continue to blaze, Sally, in all the minds you have touched and inspired.
And I’m sure your spirit now is firing Why, What, When and Where questions to the stars.
Never, during my whole career, have I met someone like Sally.
Every time I bumped into her, at the Exporatorium, at an Ecsite conference, during one of our European project meetings, her eyes would be twinkling with enthusiasm, her lips smiling.
She had the rare virtue of making you feel important. As if everything you said was of the greatest importance and interest. She would tilt her head slightly, shake her long heir back and look briefly elsewhere as she took in your words… and then she would again smile and give you her comment… always so spot-on and mind-tickling!
She was a true embodiment of curiosity. And a wonderful friend. Goodbye Sally.
Aw Sally, I miss you.
I met her, here and there, once in while. And she always had a friendly smile for me. Once it was in Lisbon, during a Festival. She hint at me, we talked for a while, she commented the shows. And, as usual when I was with her , I felt somehow grateful for her simple and yet wise words, for the humanity and the open and curious attitude she reserved to the world around. She was a rare gem, I’ll miss her.
Sally was a dear mentor, colleague, and friend. At one point I was even lucky enough to have her as my boss. For me she informed and embodied the Exploratorium ethos in countless ways. And when she left the place she carried that deep curiosity and holistic thinking about science and culture with her. The number of inspiring minds that she introduced me to- Richard Gregory, Phil and Phylis Morrison (Phil would have been 100 this month!), Steven and Hillary Rose, Oliver Sacks, Jonathan Miller, V.S. Ramachandran, among many others. When Darlene Librero and I were directing the high school explainer program she made sure that these folks always made time to speak an interact our high school-aged explainers, creating the space for countless fascinating moments of mutual learning, appreciation and enjoyment. As so many have said here, she invited the world to the place (and vice versa) in generous ways that have had immeasurable impact far and wide. One of the ways this manifest was in the way Sally encouraged and supported international participation in the explainer program, and how the experiences of those young people led to cross cultural learning among them and the local students and to research questions that drove some of her post-Explo work. A few special memories were when she invited composer and inventor Marco Antônio Guimarães from Uakti for an Exploratorium residency, during which he built the simple, elegant and engaging Hole Saw Rhythms and Rhythm Rounds exhibits that she and I so delighted in, and the unforgettable concert that Uakti played in the McBean theater during that time. I’ll also always be grateful to her for sending me to Brazil for the first time, as part of that rich exchange program that she and Maurice Bazin developed with Espaço Ciência Viva. (We both loved Milton Nascimento’s “Lagrima do Sul,” a song that we practiced Portuguêse to and always makes me think of her.) And that smile that beams out from so many of the photos that have been shared. I remember feeling the warmth of that for the first time when she and I looked up at each other while playing steel pans together on a float in SF Carnaval, so many years ago! Thank you, Sally, for so many moments, ideas, exhibits, people, laughs, tunes, hugs. We’ll never stop missing you, but all of those gifts we will carry on with gratitude and love.
A sweet, engaging, curious, and interesting soul. A true friend and mentor for whom I am so grateful. That smile…
From the first time I met Sally, many years ago in San Francisco, to the last time I saw her, just a few months ago in Miami, she was always filled with such enthusiasm for people and ideas!
Fortunately Sally’s enthusiasm lives on through the many, many people she influenced.
Sally was the first person to hire me, on staff, 30 years ago! I was to do the technical drawings for Cookbook III, to show how to build 75 exhibits. I wasn’t sure I would be up to the challenge, since the exhibits were not put together that well in the first place. To take them apart and figure how they were built and get them working again was crazy. Sally managed the project seamlessly (deflecting the spears and arrows from the exhibit maintenance folks for me) and produced the last Cookbook.
Sally was the first person I met at the Exploratorium. I came for my first visit in the early nineties. It was my pilgrimage to the “mecca” of science museums. I was just a young, interested museum person who wanted to talk to someone at the Exploratorium and Sally generously made herself available. I remember her being as curious about me as I was about the Exploratorium. I remember from that day feeling so welcomed, and deciding that the Exploratorium was “my kind of place”, that somehow I belonged as a part of this far flung tribe of curious, creative inquirers. Years later I got to know Sally better when she served as a consultant to the Exploratorium’s relocation to Piers 15 and 17, helping us probe and define how to continue our work in psychology and the social sciences. Among many things, she helped grow the relationship we developed with the Harvard History of Science program, helping set up a visit from their graduate students for a week-long idea exchange. Always the consummate curator of relationships!
Last time I saw Sally was back in May this year. I was in the Bay Area for Maker Faire and was taking the opportunity to finally visit the latest incarnation of the Exploratorium, and bumped into her unexpectedly in the cafe. She promptly gave me a big hug and plied me with questions about what I was doing there, what I thought of the new Exploratorium, what we were up to at Life and all sorts of other things. A typical, lovely, Sally encounter – she was interested in absolutely everything in a genuine and enthusiastic way and was incredibly perceptive and knowledgeable. I always valued her insights into science centres and particularly appreciated her in-depth grasp of pretty much everything we do. Sally could be relied on for wise words on exhibit development, evaluation, education programmes, outreach, special events, management structure – pretty much anything relevant to running a happy and effective institution. My heart always lifted when I saw we would be at the same conference, as I then knew I would receive a warm welcome and have someone who I could rely on for cheerful companionship and absorbing conversation that would range far beyond the science centre world. It is with abiding sorry that I realise that we will not do this again, and that she joins the list of much-loved colleagues we have lost and has done so far too early.
I met Sally 24 years ago at a conference in Bristol. She was a brilliant ambassador for the Exploratorium, invited me to visit and introduced me to the wonderful people who worked there. I’ve returned regularly every since, even fixing her plumbing when she lived at Green Street. She became a good friend, generous, lively, always good company. It’s still a shock that she’s gone because I had got used to her surviving medical emergencies including a brain aneurism and heart surgery. She seemed to be a cat with nine lives, but sadly finally used them all up. I will miss her a lot.
I got to know Sally in 2011, when she asked if I would like to help her run an Ecsite pre-conference workshop in Warsaw. It was the early days of my career and I felt deeply grateful for her encouragement, gentle reassurance and positivity. Running into her in later years always gleaned wonderful new insights. Sally, I wish I had taken a moment to thank you for your mentorship.
I remember the day I met you, it was my birthday and we were in Paris at Orna’s. I learned so much from you that day, and every day I had the fortune to connect with you, short or long encounters, you always brought bright ideas to think about and grow. I only have words of gratitude for being such an inspiration.
Hugs from here to there,
We first met Sally in Amsterdam, some twenty years ago. Me, and my young colleagues at Nemo Amsterdam were enjoying our first jobs and our first encounters with the science centre world. On regular occasions we had science centre experts from abroad coming in; Sally being one of them. Since then she became one of our most cherished members of ‘the science centre family’. Being part of the family would mean bumping into each other occasionally at conferences all over the world. I remember those moments well: Sally always smiling, optimistic and interested to see how we were doing. A radiant point of energy, warm. She was proud of her work, proud of the achievements of our field, curious in general. Sally, you will be missed, in all the meet-ups that we would have had for sure, somewhere, in a spot in our beautiful world.
Steven, Peter, the crew of NorthernLight
An inspiring leader in our field. There will be many a gap for all professionals
as Sally was always so approachable…. So wise, warm considerate and at forefront of
researching ways people of all culture interact through exhibits
And themes provided in our science centres… A sincere sadness I personally
shared no where near enough time with this wonderful person.
I met Sally 20-30 years ago, I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember that at each of our meetings over many years, I was dazzled by her joy of life and enthusiasm. On each occasion there was rich, informative conversation and a sense of close friendship, even though we seldom met. I miss those encounters with an extraordinary person.
“I am dying- either today or tomorrow”.
This was the first live communication I’d had from Sally for many days. She had been better and worse and – even worse, so when she called and said this I wondered how she could be so precise and so clear and still so close to death.
“I have to make arrangements”. I took this to mean that it was actually in her control- that Sally was hooked up to devices that were keeping her alive and that she had now reached a decision to disconnect.
And then she basically said “goodbye”.
So for the next 2 days, I called the nurses’ station and asked if Sally was “still there” meaning both was she still in her room and was she still with us in this world. On the third day, the nurse said that Sally was no longer in her room and that she had been discharged.
I couldn’t believe it. What happened!?! I called Sally and asked her if she had gone home. She scoffed and said that she wouldn’t be going home for a while but that she was in a rehab center near my house and that she would really like some Junior Mints, Dots and some of those potato sticks that we have all seen in the past and remember but that turn out to be really hard to find these days.
Minus the Dots and with the Junior Mints and extruded salty potato and veggie snack in hand, I went to visit Sally. Other than being really skinny and frail, Sally was herself- fully engaged and ready to go. She’d heard that there was a garden in the back somewhere and wanted to go there- even though she could only walk unassisted for a few steps at a time or that we would have to drag the huge oxygen tank along behind her.
Fortunately, Sally was well enough to be untethered from the oxygen for a while as long as she didn’t exhaust herself and rode in the wheelchair. We found the little courtyard, not much of a garden really, more of a small unfilled swimming pool with a few tables and umbrellas sitting on the ground. But it was heaven. Noisy and sunny and full of light and air. Sally talked about what happened to her.
She had been having difficulty breathing and then suddenly she was unable to breathe at all and passed out. When she regained consciousness she was in intensive care and in a condition that she didn’t recognize or understand.
I am paraphrasing Sally’s account but this is the gist of it.
“I tried to notice and understand what was wrong with my body. It was horrible, and I needed all of my energy and concentration to try and figure out what I could do to get well. But at a certain point, I had had enough. I just couldn’t do it anymore.” (This was after a long series of improvements and setbacks).
Sally continued… “Then a nurse asked me if I would like some Ativan and I said OK.” Sally started laughing. “Suddenly I was completely out of it, unconscious- and nobody could revive me. It was very scary for them, but eventually I woke up suddenly and said, ‘That was wonderful!’”
Just the way she said “That was wonderful” was so familiar and so like Sally when she would talk about some moment of discovery- full of astonishment and delight and totally infectious.
And that was the turn around point. Not long after that, the hospital released Sally to the rehab center and she was on her way to feeling better. Before I left, Sally looked down at what she was wearing. It was a very large grey T-Shirt with an eagle and American flag splashed across the front. “I would really like to have some of my own clothes”, she said laughing again. Unfortunately, I was unable to retrieve her clothes because there was no way to get into her house so I offered to bring her some of mine the next day.
And so we continued to visit- briefly each day. It was so great to see Sally coming back. She was gaining weight, becoming more and more energetic. Returning to the world after such a dismal and isolated period, Sally was optimistic about her recovery and voracious in her desire to discuss what was going on in the world. It was wonderful.
A few days later, in reply to my asking if Sally wanted more of the extruded veggie sticks, Sally sent this text message:
“Good morning thanks for asking. Thoughtful. I’m OK on the veggie sticks but could really go for a taco or a piece of pizza or some sushi…”
So I picked up some sushi on my way home from work and stopped by to have dinner with Sally in her little room. She was wearing one of my shirts and looked a lot better- more comfortable and ready for sushi. We talked about current events and I said I’d bring in some recent New Yorker magazines the next day. After eating most of the sushi, Sally was tired and ready to call it a day. I told her how happy I was to see her again and that she was doing so well. We said goodnight, “I love you” and “see you tomorrow”.
The next morning Ian called to say that Sally had died.
It seemed like such a dirty trick when she was doing so well. We thought she was going to go home. Sally didn’t pass away after a long illness. She was on the trajectory to recovery and it was a shock. I wanted to share this story of Sally’s last few days because she was getting stronger and was intensely alive. Yes, she was seriously ill and had nearly died in the hospital. But she didn’t die and wither away after a long illness. She came back fighting and laughing – her curious and passionate self. This is the way I will remember her and I offer it as a loving and positive memory for all of us who knew and loved Sally to hold onto.
I was forever changed during those brief years on either side of the opening of the Exploratorium when I worked with my father. It was a profound change of perspective for me. I was young, as was the hopeful culture of the late Sixties in San Francisco and the Exploratorium. My way of looking and seeing was solidly and forever expanded then even though my youth and the promise of the Sixties abruptly vanished shortly thereafter.
It was my father’s tradition with me, after I left the Exploratorium, that whenever I visited, he would take me as if by the hand to the latest exhibit either on the floor or in progress in the shop. And it was in this manner that I met Sally Duensing at her nascent Cheshire Cat exhibit. That exhibit, the discovery and development for all to experience, of an ancient eye/brain protective wiring system, in retrospect was and is the embodiment of Sally. The progressive unveiling of deep and profound understandings through question after question driven by unwavering optimism is how I will remember Sally. When next I visit the Exploratorium I will sit before the Cheshire Cat, blink my eyes, and there Sally shall appear.
She taught me much. Not just about the chemistry of curiosity and learning, but about kindness and determined optimism and consistent belief in creative solutions. Her energy and ideas were central to so many projects.
It is hard to say words that don’t sound the usual ones for a person so unusual, so special as Sally.
I feel myself privileged to have met her and to have had her insights injected to my mind. I will always treasure her advice for when I went to San Francisco, even the most simple ones as that of going to Muir Woods, a place I will always remember with joy. And now, a place that will always remind me of Sally.
I know I will miss her.
Sally had a special kind of magic. She was not only my dear long friend, but also a brilliant science and technology educator. She will be missed by many but remembered by all she touched with her valiant missions.
I can’t believe Sally’s gone. My time with her at the Exploratorium started after she had officially left the museum, but fortunately for me, she never really left. Her visits home to San Francisco were always accompanied by visits to the Exploratorium, which she loved so much. She’d touch base with old friends and make new ones. I was one of the newbies back then, 16 years ago.
I didn’t occur to me, until recently, that we never worked on a project together. What’s particularly notable about this is that she knew more about my work at the Exploratorium than other colleagues I work with here. With each visit, I’d get little “Sally deliveries” on my desk – articles to read that related to our last conversation, or post-its with names of people I should meet – and each were somehow spot-on in terms of relevance. She had such a gift for this. Kurt talked about her ‘mental rolodex’ in terms of the people she knew, but the depth of her knowledge about ideas was equally impressive. I have folders on my physical and digital desktops that simply say “Sally,” – my inadequate effort to keep up with her.
Sally traveled the world spreading her enthusiasm for learning and generous amounts of curiosity with everyone she’d encounter. I always enjoyed discovering new friends in common, near and far. As I type this today, it still feels like she’s just off on another adventure and will be swinging by the museum to meet for coffee and conversation next month. I will miss our conversations, and still marvel at how present she managed to be for every one.
I’ve been reading over old notes from her over the last few weeks and one in particular she gave me when father died, hit particularly hard.
“Having lost my father two years ago I can empathize with some of the ache of loss you must be feeling. I wonder if one can ever be prepared….I dropped everything I was doing to fly to Wisconsin from Paris to be with my father for what I thought would be his last few weeks of life. It ended up being his last two days of life…..Although the distractions of the tasks helps get on with things, I hope you will be able to have chunks of time soon to let down, be spacey, stare at walls, be sad and grieve.”
Let me know if you want some company, I’d be glad to take the ferry up to see you”.
Sally deeply loved the Exploratorium, despite its flaws or maybe because of them. She appreciated what made and makes it such a special place; its people, and their unique ways of seeing the world. To me Sally carried the source code (or soul code) of the place with her, wherever she went. That’s what I loved most about her!
I’m sorry to miss the memorial celebration tonight – ironically I’m waking up on the other side of the globe getting ready to lead a workshop with museum colleagues from nine Science Centers across Asia and Australia. I think Sally would somehow approve, and then follow-up with a note filled with questions about who was there, what their interests were, and the possible connections she perceived.
For those of us at the Boston Children’s Museum in the 1970’s under Michael Spock we felt we had siblings at the Exploratorium under Frank Oppenheimer. So while Frank and Mike were colleagues my sister was Sally Duensing and my brother was Rob Semper. Whenever we saw each we behaved as relatives. And so I would sit up late at night at conferences with Sally figuring out our next life moves. And we would not be surprised if we were put on the same panel in a foreign country. And when she moved to London I was living in London. We did not see each other often but it didn’t matter we knew that we could count on each other at any time and were having a life trajectory that was parallel. So now a big hole in my lifeline and huge loss for the profession. I send my deep condolences to those for whom this is a day to day loss. She was a special wonder in our world. E–
Thank you Sally.
It was a great pleasure and and an honor to work, learn and grow with you at the Exploratorium…
during my 14 years at the Palace of Fine Arts Sally was certainly one of the key core family members who nurtured and expanded Frank’s vision (the words shared on this page attest to this from so many different perspectives)…and her teaching and leadership and friendship always had a style that carried the very essence of what makes the Exploratorium the unique place it is….we will all miss you.
Still can’t believe that Sally had gone since I received an Email from Melissa a week ago. We’ve been friends for over 20years since I got an opportunity to take my international internship between The Explo and JSF Tokyo Science Museum. I got a little tentative office in the room then Sally and Pete shared on the ground floor of PFAs. She really opened my eyes to a new way of understanding of science and technology through hands-on approach. All the things I learned from my precious time at the place ended up for me to produce an award winning new science museum The Forest at the JSF Science Museum in Tokyo. Sally was also one of my respectful mentors for my doctoral dissertation committee at U of Iowa in 2005. At that time she already left SF and moved to England as a faculty at Kings college of London. She gave me a lot of thoughtful and useful comments and suggestions from the academical standpoint to improve my research project then I working on and flew over to Iowa for attending my final oral defense. She was so cheerful as well as strict about my research as I present my talk during the defense session. When my chief academic adviser Bob Yager let me know that I had succeeded the session and Sally stepped up to me with her warm smile saying congratulations. It was one of my best moments I’ve ever had while I stayed in the US. I wish I could have been in the memorial day for her in the Exploratorium last November but my heart truly think of her and all the wonderful colleagues who share my thoughts that I’m still having hard time to endure on recognizing this sad news.
Are you out there in the cosmos looking down at us with your usual curiosity and caring smile ? I can imagine you exploring everything around you with joyful greediness – hanging on to shooting stars, testing out the different planets, visiting far off places we can’t even imagine….. On full moons I’ll look for your silhouette flying across on a broomstick or pogo stick or on giant springs, waving hello and laughing with the pleasure and excitement of it all.
Sally when I heard you had left us for another special unworldly exploratorium I was in Paris and went straight out to buy one of our double hotdogs, corner of Vieille du Temple, flowing over with every trimming, and sat on our bench longing for you to be there with me, laughing together at the mustard and ketchup and dried onions falling on and around us. And I felt you were – and feel that you are.. In life there are special people, special relationships, where time doesn’t count – we could be separated for days, or weeks and sometimes months but the remeetings had no distance between them – continuous flow.
So continue to flow Sally, I’ll be there, we will be there.
So much love,
contact with you
today I find you’ve gone
and words from friends who loved you too
that I could not
see and hug you once again
and thank you for our good old days