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I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh. I have no idea if he is guilty or innocent of the charges levied against him. What I do know is that powerful men have been taking advantage of their privileged position over women for centuries. I know this because over 400 years ago William Shakespeare showed us the depths of male depravity in a little-known but powerful play called Measure for Measure.

Given the recent events surrounding Kavanaugh, #metoo, and what seems like an endless stream of men behaving badly, Measure for Measure takes its place as the most modern and relevant of all the works of the canon.

No one in this play is a hero. All the characters Shakespeare breathes to life in his fictional Vienna come replete with faults. There’s the pimp Pompey, who comments about his employer Mistress Overdone that she has had nine husbands, “Overdone by the last.” There’s Lucio, described in the cast list as “a fantastic.” In reality he’s among the most misogynistic of Shakespeare’s creations. His comments about women in Act Five seem to him witty; our modern ears recognize the seeds of our society’s disdain for any woman who doesn’t toe the line – and a good deal of disdain even for those who do.

Then there’s the meddling and ridiculous “old fantastical duke of dark corners,” as he’s called by the afore-mentioned Lucio. Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, abandons his rancid and sex-crazed city to Angelo, a prude who goes about enforcing old and neglected laws calling for the death of anyone engaging in sex outside of marriage. Into Angelo’s trap falls Claudio, who has impregnated his fiance Juliet.

The Duke, whose plan is to disguise himself as a friar so as to keep his eye on Angelo (why? it’s not really clear), reveals his own misogyny when addressing Juliet about Claudio’s impending execution.

  • VincentioLove you the man that wrong’d you?
  • JulietYes, as I love the woman that wrong’d him.
  • VincentioSo then it seems your most offenceful act
    Was mutually committed?
  • VincentioThen was your sin of heavier kind than his.

And there it is. To men the message is, “don’t get caught.” To women, it’s “you should know better.”

The action of the play, though, centers around the novice nun Isabella. I’ll not criticize her here. Her choices are not mine, but – unable to escape my essential maleness – I can’t know how Isabella sees a world as described by the Duke to Juliet in the passage cited above. Perhaps Isabel does know better.

When Lucio is sent to implore Isabella to beg for her brother’s life, at first she is appalled by the earthiness of it all. But she finally comes around, and is so passionate in her defense that she turns the otherwise icy Angelo to thoughts of – well, of something other than ice.

And then comes the moment. Angelo tells Isabel she must surrender her body to his desire, or else her brother will not only die but be tortured. Isabel threatens to reveal Angelo for what he really is:

  • IsabellaHa! little honour to be much believed,
    And most pernicious purpose! Seeming, seeming!
    I will proclaim thee, Angelo; look for’t:
    Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
    Or with an outstretch’d throat I’ll tell the world aloud
    What man thou art.
  • AngeloWho will believe thee, Isabel?
    My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,
    My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,
    Will so your accusation overweigh,
    That you shall stifle in your own report
    And smell of calumny. I have begun,
    And now I give my sensual race the rein:
    Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
    Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
    That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
    By yielding up thy body to my will;
    Or else he must not only die the death,
    But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
    To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
    Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
    I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
    Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.


  • IsabellaTo whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
    Who would believe me?

Who can’t hear the voices of all the men who’ve been caught abusing their power here? Who can’t feel the hopelessness of all the women who’ve feared not being believed?

And yet Angelo is only the second worst misogynist in this play full of misogynists. The Duke tricks Isabel into believing her brother is dead. When he reveals, voila! Claudio is still alive, he apparently expects Isabel to fall down and kiss his feet. Then, in the play’s final, horrible action, the Duke ever so magnanimously announces that he will accept Isabella (the nun-in-training Isabella) for his own wife. What the what?

It is often said of Hamlet that Shakespeare created a real person and somehow plopped him in the middle of a play. After reading Measure for Measure again, I now believe this is true of Isabella, as well. Her final action, of simply refusing to speak, refusing to acknowledge this ridiculous proposal by the Duke (of course, the Duke being the chief law-giver in the city, it’s more than a proposal, isn’t it?) is the moment when Isabella becomes a real person, a human woman who refuses to answer to Shakespeare, to the Duke, to any of us. She is stunned into silence, unable to imagine that, after the trauma of Angelo’s indecency, after the heartbreak of thinking she’s lost her brother, somehow the Duke could believe that what she really wants is a husband. I picture Isabel alone on the stage, silent, staring out at the audience in astonished disbelief.

Bottom line, everyone needs to read this, Shakespeare’s most modern, immediate, and timely masterpiece.



I renamed this blog “Symphony” to reflect my desire to experience more of the world. I’d been focused on science and all the wonders that it can bring to us that I’d neglected so much else of the world – painting, sculpture, dance, literature, and music.

I chose the word because I believe the creation of a symphony has to be one of the premier achievements of the human mind. All those instruments, all those different parts, all somehow blending into a satisfying whole. How do they do it? It’s entirely possible I feel that way because I know next to nothing about the subject. The ironic thing is that when I chose the word I’d never been to an actual symphony performance.

Now that’s changed. For our anniversary, Julie and I went to see the Columbus Symphony Orchestra perform four amazing pieces. They were Bach/Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; Wagner: “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre; Dukas: L’apprenti sorcier (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), and Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra. The conductor was Rossen Milanov.

The first three pieces, all performed before intermission, were fun and exciting. When “Ride of the Valkyries” started, Julie and I, both raised in the era of Saturday morning cartoons, turned to each other at the same moment and mouthed, “kill the wabbit!” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was especially thrilling. I’d expected my first symphony experience to be mostly relaxing, maybe a sit back with my eyes closed kind of time. Instead, I was on the edge of my seat. Who knew that a composer, a conductor, and an orchestra could create such a sense of drama and tension?

The second half, following intermission, simply blew me away. I was in tears again (admittedly, no great feat) as the music just carried me away. I found out later that the Strauss “tone poem” (I don’t know what that means, but that’s what Wikipedia calls it) was based on a book of the same name by Nietzsche. What little I know of Nietzsche leads me to believe that his nihilist philosophy is not for me, but Strauss’s interpretation is heart-stoppingly beautiful, deeply dramatic, and incredibly fulfilling. I’ve requested both the book and a recording of the music from Julie’s library (God, I love libraries!)

Beyond the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey beginning (the part that everyone’s heard), the contrasts between the barely audible whispers and the crashing crescendos in Strauss’s creation, and the beautiful sound of the solo violinist rising above the rest of the instruments, moved me in a way I didn’t know music could.

Julie and I were talking afterward as we walked back to the car. The thing about this piece, and really all the pieces we heard, is that the drama somehow builds to this very satisfying conclusion, a conclusion that leaves you breathless, cheerful, and dizzy with wonder. It’s an amazing testament to the accomplishments of this upright ape from the plains of Africa, not only coming to know its world but to create from its own mind a new one, never before seen or imagined in this universe.

I need to learn more about this world of beautiful, classical music, and everything that goes into it. I’m hooked!

A question someone asked me recently got me thinking about science museums. Funny that I’ve hardly written about them here, despite the fact that I spent over 20 years working in museums, and fully expected to spend even more time working there until they showed me the door.

When it comes to museums, I often come off as arrogant, as if I think I know everything. If that happens here, I apologize. In reality, there’s so very, very much I don’t know about museums. I don’t know a thing about business models, bottom lines, making payroll, or keeping the doors open. I don’t know about liability, public-private partnerships, measurable outcomes, or marketing. I don’t know how they decide what to charge for a bag of stale popcorn or a watery diet Pepsi, or where they get all those crappy toys they sell in the gift shop.

What I do know is how to get kids excited about science. I know because for well over a decade in my 23-plus science museum career, that’s what I tried to do every day. I didn’t always succeed, but I succeeded more often than not. And in the process I learned what works and what doesn’t.

So here’s what generally happens in a science museum, and why it generally doesn’t do much to get kids to love science the way I and other museum people love it.

In a typical science museum, kids come pouring in like marines taking a beach. They see something shiny and scurry over. They push buttons; maybe something happens and maybe it doesn’t. If it makes noise or lights flash, they pay attention. If it doesn’t, they go on to something else. If they can get wet or (even better) get someone else wet, they love that. If they can build something or (better yet) knock it down, they love that, too. What they learn of science from all these things, I have no idea, and don’t really care. One thing I’m pretty certain of is that they don’t learn what the designers intended. Mostly they just get wet.

Every once in a while, the kids see someone at a cart, or walking in the halls with an interesting-looking prop. If the person seems friendly, if the prop is interesting enough, the kids might go over and see what’s going on. Too often, the person at the cart or holding the prop is another kid, a teenage volunteer or maybe a college student trying to make a little money. Usually these museum staff are not much better than the exhibits with the flashing lights or the splashing water. They might have memorized a script they drone out again and again, hoping no one asks a question. The kids eventually slip away, looking for another button to push.

But occasionally the person at the cart or holding the prop is someone who actually cares about the interaction. This person might be a dedicated museum professional, or at least someone being mentored by one. These are the “museum people.” Now the interaction takes on a different flavor. There’s no rote script; rather, questions and answers fly back and forth between the museum person and the kid. The kid is invited to touch, to try, to hold, to hear, to feel. There are terrible jokes that make the kid laugh because they’re so terrible. The kid asks a great question, and the museum person says, “That’s a great question. Let’s see if we can find out!” The kid gets so excited she starts jumping up and down in anticipation. She wants to know what’s next. She wants to try it again. Sometimes, she even wants to teach someone else how it works. And the museum person has to hold back tears, the interaction is that powerful. And all is right with the world.

The museum people who catalyze these reactions have a few common traits. Museum people have “it”, an infectious enthusiasm that makes everyone feel comfortable and not intimidated. You understand you’re in the presence of someone who is not lording over you with superior knowledge, but instead is genuinely excited about seeing how you will react to discovering something new. Museum people love to laugh, especially at really bad jokes. Museum people love questions, especially questions they don’t know the answers to. Museum people love to help others explore. They have no sense of time – an interaction can be brief or extended, it can cut into the published schedule, their own lunch time, even closing time for the museum, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the exploration.

First, last, and always, museum people aren’t selling anything – nothing but their own joy and love of the cool things they know will make kids go “woah!” For a museum person, that “woah” is the greatest sound in the world. And we know how to get it.

Liquid nitrogen can get it. So can dry ice. Invisible electromagnetic fields are great at inducing that sound. Bones, especially skulls, can do the job. Fire is a sure-fire woah inducer. Flying things are great, too. So are explosions.

There are other, more subtle, ways of getting the woah. Things that feel funny, or that change color, or that light up at just the right moment get a woah, even if the effect itself isn’t the most exciting thing ever. It’s all in the set-up and the delivery. Every kid has one shot at getting that woah moment for every effect, and a museum person understands that every experience, every time, every kid is vital. They are all our starfish, in our hands for just a short time before we return them to the ocean. We have to make that moment count. Every. Single. Time.

Sadly, science museums aren’t built for the woah. They aren’t built with dedicated museum professionals in mind. Why? Lots of reasons. All of them bad.

Here’s how things often happen at science museums. A big business with an important message comes to the museum. “Hey,” they say, “we’d like to give you a wad of money. Can  you get kids excited about making healthy food choices?”

The science museum sees the wad of cash, thinks about how that wad of cash can help keep the doors open, pay the light bill, and make payroll. And so the science museum lies.

“Yeah, we can get kids excited about making healthy food choices.”

They know it’s a lie. They’ve tried before. Everyone’s tried before, and they’ve failed. Why? Because kids don’t want to learn about healthy food choices. They want the “woah!” Now maybe someone out there, a museum person who understands the woah even better than I do, has a great idea that involves healthy food choices. I doubt it, but then as I said before there’s lot I don’t know. But this I do know. You don’t get the woah by trying to sell healthy food choices. You get the woah by going for the woah – by finding that golden moment that makes kids go “woah!” and building your interaction around that. If the moment the museum people find happens to involve healthy food choices, well, they’re better than me. But it has to start with the woah. It’s not the outcome that matters. It’s how you get there. Wonder is a journey.

So the science museum lies. They take the wad of cash, and they build an exhibit about healthy food choices. It sucks. They might even have a cart activity or a traveling prop about healthy food choices. It sucks, too, and what makes it suck worse is that almost always the person behind the cart isn’t a museum person. It’s someone reciting a script, a script approved by the company with the wad of cash that wanted their name on something to do with healthy food choices.

There’s no woah. There’s no joy in discovery and no opportunity to fall in love. The journey is just a means to an end. Be sure to drink your Ovaltine. The kids walk away, uninspired.

Meanwhile, the museum people – despite being notoriously underpaid because they are doing what they love, and you can bet the museum takes full advantage (we used to say we keep the salaries low to keep out the riffraff) – are seen as a drain on the institution. As a result, they slowly disappear. Many move into “behind the scenes” jobs, jobs that pay better, get them home on weekends, and get them a lot more respect in the museum field. Having myself worked many, many museum jobs, I can tell you no one works harder than the museum people on the floor, looking every day for those starfish. It’s not even close.

Most museum people that don’t move into behind the scenes jobs eventually move on to something else. If you can’t get on full-time, you really can’t stay forever, and why would a museum make a full-time job out of something that (from the museum’s point of view) a part-timer or better yet an unpaid volunteer can do just as well?

A few museum people try to hang on, but eventually that budget will be cut and changes will be made. Because these museum people have no voice in management (they are notoriously rotten at politics, and avoid meetings like the plague because of course they’d rather be out there inspiring the woah), one by one they get cut from the staff. And because most visitors to the museum never encountered one of these museum people, never experienced the woah themselves, the museum people are hardly missed.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s what should happen.

The museum, instead of selling itself as the place with flashing lights and splashing, should sell itself as the home of dedicated museum people who know how to get the woah. Then, when the company with the wad of cash comes, the museum can say, “No, we can’t get kids excited about healthy food choices. What we can do is keep paying our dedicated museum people to inspire a new generation of kids to fall in love with science. These kids who love science, who love learning, who are excited about discovering the world all around them, will have the tools they need to make good choices about themselves and their world. How’s that?”

And then the museum professionals, who know more about the woah than anyone else, can go to work.

That would be a museum worth going to.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
September 2018
A blog by Stephen Whitt

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