Phil Hammack helps shape Exploratorium's exhibition about identity

UCSC Ph.D. grad Moin Syed also contributes to Self, Made

Phil Hammack at the entrance to the Exploratorium's exhibition about identity
Psychology Professor Phil Hammack enjoyed helping exhibition developers figure out how to present complex ideas about identity to the public. The gender wheel, below, invites visitors to explore their assumptions about gender, while the names chosen for the "license plate exhibit" are deliberately inclusive. (Top two photos courtesy of Phil Hammack; bottom photo courtesy of Melissa Alexander)

For scholars like Psychology Professor Phil Hammack, the challenge of getting new ideas into mainstream society is constant. Which is why he was thrilled to help plan the Exploratorium's new exhibit about identity, Self, Made: Exploring You in a World of We.

About a year ago, Hammack was invited to share his ideas about "the concept of identity in our time" during a two-day planning workshop hosted by the Exploratorium. He was one of 10 scholars who gave 10-minute talks about their ideas before a dozen or so exhibit designers. His talk focused on power, story, and social interaction.

"I'd never done anything like this," said Hammack, a social psychologist whose research focuses on what he calls a "quiet revolution" in sexuality, gender identity, and relationships. "It was a wonderful and, frankly, cool experience as a scholar."

Hammack emphasized "the fluid nature of identity" and shared information about the explosion in sexual and gender identities and relationship practices that he has uncovered in his research.

"Day One was pretty cerebral, and Day Two was led by the exhibit designers," recalled Hammack. "That's when I felt completely out of my element. When the designers asked us how we'd translate our ideas into an exhibit, I really had no idea."

But the exhibition, which opened recently and runs through Sept. 2, is wonderful, said Hammack, who was delighted by how the designers incorporated many of his ideas.

"They really made our academic ideas come to life," he said, adding that the hands-on nature of the Exploratorium's interactive exhibits is engaging.

One exhibit called "Don't Get Me Wrong" gives visitors the opportunity "to write a story about who they are and how they think others see them," said Hammack. Aspects of identity including race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality permeated the stories that visitors shared by posting them on the wall.

Another exhibit, the "Gender Wheel," invites visitors to explore their assumptions about gender. Guests select from a range of descriptors, including "masculine," "feminine," "both," and "neither," to talk about themselves, their presentation, and who they love.

Hammack was invited to participate by the exhibition's project director Melissa Alexander, who also directs public programs at the Exploratorium. Alexander was perusing the Oxford Handbook of Identity Development when she read a chapter written by Hammack that contained this statement: "Identity is the anchoring concept for thinking about difference and sameness in our time. It is not a concept confined to the jargon of the social sciences or the humanities; it permeates our everyday conversations, our moment-to-moment cognitive processes in a world increasingly characterized by diversity."

"That became my rationale for doing the exhibit," said Alexander.

The Exploratorium is about helping people have a functional understanding of how the world works, said Alexander. Social identity is a lens that shapes the way people interpret new evidence—which can mean using it to confirm their existing beliefs, she said. "Identity is at play in every major news story, whether it's about the climate crisis, immigration, voting, police bias and brutality, gender, or the #metoo movement," she said. "We wanted to provide a learner-centered exploration of the different ways that identity has been constructed by history, art, and science."

UCSC alum Moin Syed (Ph.D. 2009, psychology), an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, also participated in the two-day brainstorming session. Syed, who specializes in identity development and ethnic identity, shared an anecdote from his childhood that led directly to a popular element in the new exhibit: Designers recreated a souvenir license plate rack like those found in tourist spots, but instead of typical European-derived names, the staff sourced names from lists of the museum's docents, who come from very diverse backgrounds. The exhibit asks visitors, "How does it feel to be excluded— or finally included?"

"We put Moin's name up, too," said Alexander, noting that she has tapped UCSC experts in the past, and several graduates of the Science Communication program have been staff writers at the Exploratorium. "UCSC is a great resource for us," she said.

Syed noted that the experience was unique, but he said his time at UCSC provided a valuable foundation for the work.

"UCSC has a major strength in integrating social sciences into educational settings, particularly museums, so the general idea of the project resonated with the way I was trained to think," said Syed, who has also collaborated on projects with the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

"It was a great opportunity to translate complex ideas to a learning experience that's not in the classroom," said Hammack, who is taking advantage of a range of opportunities to share his work with the public.

Hammack recently discussed his research on the Freakonomics podcast, recorded live in San Francisco. His interview begins 38 minutes into the episode, Long-term Thinking in a Start-up Town.

On Tuesday, June 25, at 1 p.m., Hammack and researchers from UCLA and UC San Francisco will discuss generational differences in LGBTQ identity and relationships, as revealed by the Generations Study, during a Facebook Live event hosted by the UC Office of the President as part of Pride Month.


Editor's Note: The Facebook Live event is available online here: