Paul Maurer used to say he graduated in theater arts from the University of Minnesota because “everything else sounded too difficult.” But the veteran, set designer and designer, used those skills to bring a sense of drama to the Minnesota Museum of Science, where he was director of the exhibits for nearly 20 years.
“Paul was not one of those people who played his own horn, but he had a huge influence on the Science Museum,” said Beth Schmidt, director of the Museum of Planning and Experience Development. “He launched programs that really helped put the Museum of Science on a national footing and become a leader among our fellow science centers.
Maurer died on June 9 at the age of 69.
Maurer grew up in South St. Paul. A skilled carpenter, he began working on professional theater sets as a high school student, first at the Chimera Theater and later at the Children’s Theater Troupe.
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 Polman, a longtime theater colleague, persuaded Maurer to join him at the Science Museum in 1979.
“At the time, almost the entire exhibit department was former theater people, and I think there’s something about what made the museum distinctive,” Polman said. “I don’t think we’ve ever thought of the museum as a didactic exercise where the job is to tell people a bunch of things. We brought the idea that museums are experiences that are ultimately controlled by the public. ”
Maurer was a big believer in interactive exhibits, designing and building rooms to engage visitors with the nuts and bolts of science. Schmidt said Maurer’s vision could still be seen in the Permanent Sports Laboratory, the Space Travel exhibition and the popular Experiment Gallery, where visitors could create a tornado or conduct more than a dozen other experiments. He retired in 2016.
“Paul was just a great project manager,” Schmidt said. “His attention to detail was amazing … He was really thinking about the end users of an exhibition.”
Maurer’s influence extends far beyond Minnesota. In 1985, he launched a travel program that eventually allowed the museum to bring a dozen of its most popular exhibits to more than 90 other locations in the United States and Canada, beginning with the Wolves and Humans exhibition.
Maurer also created the museum’s exhibition 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.
“Paul had an amazing set of skills,” said Carrie Force, a longtime lighting designer at the Science Museum. “He could produce. He could design. He could paint. He could manage. And he had no problem swearing.”
Colleagues said Maurer was a generous boss, building morale through weekly “rock’n’roll breaks” at 3pm every Friday, where people brought snacks and music.
“I think the reason Paul was such a good manager is because he doesn’t attribute his contributions to other people,” Polman said. “He’s always been really 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 the fast-growing Koala Kookie company and track all of its orders.
“It was his world, bringing order to what was chaos in his mind,” Murphy said. “Paul was a real friend.”
Worship services were held. Among the survivors is his brother Peter Maurer.