Exhibit director who brought sense of theater to Science Museum, expanded its reach dies at 69
Paul Maurer liked to say that he got a degree in theater arts from the University of Minnesota because “everything else seemed too hard.” But the veteran set builder and designer used those skills to bring drama to the Science Museum of Minnesota, where he served as director of exhibits for nearly 20 years.
“Paul was not one to honk his horn, but he had an outsized influence on the science museum,” said Bette Schmit, director of planning and experience development at the museum. “He initiated programs that really helped give the Science Museum a national footing and become a leader among our other science centers.”
Maurer died on June 9 at the age of 69.
Maurer grew up in South St. Paul. A skilled woodworker, he began working on professional stage sets as a high school student, first at the Chimera Theater and later at the Children’s Theater Company.
Maurer was working at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego when an earthquake threw him out of bed, convincing him to return to Minnesota. Don Pohlman, a longtime theater colleague, convinced Maurer to join him at the Science Museum in 1979.
“At that time, almost the entire exhibits department was made up of former theater people, and I think there’s something about that that made the museum distinctive,” Pohlman said. “I don’t think we ever thought of the museum as a didactic exercise, where the job is to tell people a lot of things. We brought this idea that museums are experiences that are ultimately controlled by the public.”
Maurer was a firm believer in interactive exhibits, designing and building rooms that would engage visitors in the workings of science. Schmit said Maurer’s vision can still be seen in the permanent Sportsology Lab, the Journey to Space exhibit and the popular Experiment Gallery, where visitors can create a tornado or conduct more than a dozen other experiments. He retired in 2016.
“Paul was just a terrific project manager,” Schmit said. “His attention to detail was amazing. … He really had an exhibit’s end users in mind.”
Maurer’s influence extended far beyond Minnesota. In 1985, he began a traveling program that eventually saw the museum take a dozen of its most popular exhibits to more than 90 other locations across the United States and Canada, beginning with the Wolves and Humans exhibit.
Maurer also created the museum’s Exhibit Products and Services business, which has built exhibits for more than 20 other science centers across the country, including the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas and the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Angeles.
“Paul had an incredible skill set,” said Cary Forss, the Science Museum‘s longtime lighting designer. “He could produce. He could design. He could draw. He could manage. And he had no problem swearing.”
Colleagues said Maurer was a generous boss, boosting morale through weekly “rock and roll breaks” at 3 p.m. every Friday, where people brought in snacks and bonded over the music.
“I think the reason Paul was such a good manager is that he didn’t take credit for other people’s contributions,” Pohlman said. “He’s always been very good at recognizing other people.”
Friends said they also appreciated his generous spirit. Bridget Murphy said Maurer saved her cookie business in the 1990s by creating spreadsheets to organize her fast-growing company, Koala Kookie, and track all of her orders.
“It was his world – bringing order to what, in his mind, was chaos,” Murphy said. “Paul was a real friend.”
Services took place. Survivors include his brother, Peter Maurer.