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Paul Maurer liked to say that he pursued a degree in theater arts at the University of Minnesota because "everything else sounded too hard." But the veteran set builder and designer used those skills to bring a sense of drama to the Science Museum of Minnesota, where he was director of exhibits for almost 20 years.

"Paul was not one to toot his own horn, but he had an outsized influence on the Science Museum," said Bette Schmit, the museum's director of experience planning and development. "He started programs that really helped put the Science Museum on a national footing, and to become a leader among our fellow science centers."

Maurer died June 9 at the age of 69.

Maurer grew up in South St. Paul. A skilled woodworker, he began working on professional theater sets as a high school student, first at Chimera Theatre and later the Children's Theatre Company.

Maurer was working at the Old Globe Theatre 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 point, almost the entire exhibits department was ex-theater people, and I think there is 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 bunch of stuff. We brought this idea that museums are experiences that are ultimately controlled by the audience."

Maurer was a big believer in interactive exhibits, designing and building rooms that would engage visitors in the nuts and bolts 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 leader," Schmit said. "His attention to detail was amazing. ... He really thought about the end users of an exhibit."

Maurer's influence extended far beyond Minnesota. In 1985, he started a traveling program that ultimately allowed the museum to bring a dozen of its most popular exhibits to more than 90 other venues in the U.S. and Canada, starting with the Wolves and Humans exhibit.

Maurer also established the museum's Exhibit Products and Services business, which has built exhibits for more than 20 other science centers around the country, including the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas and the California Science Center in Los 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."

Co-workers said Maurer was a generous boss, building morale through weekly "rock and roll breaks" at 3 p.m. every Friday, where people brought snacks and bonded over 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 was always really good about recognizing other people."

Friends said they also appreciated his generous spirit. Bridget Murphy said Maurer rescued her cookie business in the 1990s by creating spreadsheets to organize her fast-growing company, Koala Kookie, and track all of her orders.

"That was his world — bringing order to what in his mind was chaos," Murphy said. "Paul was a true friend."

Services have been held. Survivors include his brother, Peter Maurer.