San Francisco’s New Exploratorium: A Bigger, Better Playground for the Mind

A visit to the remarkable new home of a pioneering science museum for kids and grownups.

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The Exploratorium's new home, as seen from the San Francisco Bay

San Francisco has a remarkable new museum.

O.K., it’s actually a beloved, venerable institution, the Exploratorium — the hands-on science museum founded by physicist, educator and blacklist victim Frank Oppenheimer (1912-1985), the brother of the Manhattan Project’s J. Robert Oppenheimer. And its new location is 98 years old — and was, until recently, a decrepit old warehouse on a seismically-questionable pier.

After a $300 million investment, the old building on Pier 15 is safe and spectacular. The Exploratorium, which spent its first 43 years in a somewhat cramped and out-of-the-way hall at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, has three times its former space, in a home on the city’s ever-more-vital Embarcadero. Old friends will love this expansive reimagining of the Exploratorium more than ever, and tourists and locals will stumble across it in a way they never did at the old location.

The new Exploratorium opens to the public today; I got a sneak peek last week, while a final flurry of work on the building and exhibits was still in progress.

It’s tempting to call this place a children’s science museum, but that’s not right: There’s nothing in it that’s aimed at kids at the expense of adults, and it never talks down to anybody. What it is is a child-friendly science museum, in part because its exhibits are mostly of the please-touch-me variety.

A quarter of the items in the new location are all new; the rest have been brought over from the previous digs. The Exploratorium isn’t one of those modern museums that overdoses on Disney World-style artifice and slickness: While there are wonders around every corner, most of them don’t feel like big-budget entertainment.

Some, in fact, hardly amount to exhibits at all. One, which invites you and a friend to test the boundaries of personal space, basically amounts to some lines painted on the floor. (You walk towards each other until it becomes uncomfortable.)

[image] Exploratorium plankton exhibit

Harry McCracken /

Many Exploratorium exhibits are clever but straightforward science education, such as a computerized table — it reminded me of Microsoft’s original Surface tabletop PC — which lets you learn about plankton by placing a glass disc on top of an interactive map, “magnifying” the view to reveal different sorts of organisms.

But this is also a place where you can marvel at a diorama of San Francisco made entirely of toothpicks and Elmer’s glue. (It took its creator 37 years to construct, and includes ramps that let ping-pong balls take a tour of the city.)

[image] Rolling Through the Bay

Harry McCracken /

And a towering Rube Goldberg-like clock with numerals that swing around on arms.

[image] Exploratorium clock

Harry McCracken /

And a 230-year-old Douglas fir tree that you can inspect as closely as you like.

[image Exploratorium Douglas Fir

Harry McCracken /

One of my favorite Exploratorium experiences is difficult to explain, and impossible to really show in a photograph. It’s an enormous parabolic mirror, originally designed for use in a flight simulator, which somehow creates a 3D space you can walk into, letting you coexist with your reflection. It’s razor sharp and feels eerily like real life — except for the fact that some of what you see is upside-down.

[image] Exploratorium mirror


Oh, and one of the sights to see is the workshop where fifty Exploratorium staffers design and build new stuff — it’s right there in plain view on the ground floor.

[image] Exploratorium workshop

Harry McCracken /

Far more than at the Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium’s sprawling new home is part of the show. For instance, you can see the seismic joint that runs the length of the structure to keep it stable. (One of the museum’sĀ restaurantsĀ — the Seismic Joint — is even named after it.) The building is designed to be the largest net-zero energy-use museum in the U.S., with enough solar panels to provide power to a thousand homes and a cooling and heating system that uses bay water.

[image] Exploratorium

Harry McCracken /

One side of Pier 15 faces the San Francisco Bay, with a primo view of the Bay Bridge; the other faces the city’s quirky skyline. The museum takes advantage of its surroundings with windows that put them on display — especially in one area that’s new construction rather than rehabbed warehouse — and exhibits that are outside, including some that don’t require you to pay admission. Activity will spill out onto the Embarcadero thanks to mobile exhibits such as a camera obscura on wheels.

And really, the Exploratorium has commandeered the bay itself as part of its world. Among the marine-oriented exhibits that draw inspiration from it is one that visualizes one year’s worth of bay tide levels as 365 plastic slices, based on stats from a tidal observation station that’s been collecting data for more than 150 years. The slices, which you can pull out like keys on a very long keychain, are mounted directly below a giant window that shows off the bay.

[image] Exploratorium

Harry McCracken /

If you live in San Francisco, the Exploratorium is more of a must-visit than ever — especially for people who, like me, took the old incarnation for granted and hadn’t visited in a long time. If you visit the Bay Area, put it on your list of things to do. (It’s a short distance from the Ferry Building, and a longer, but gorgeous, walk from AT&T Park.) Bring kids if you have them, but don’t worry if you don’t — on Thursdays from 6pm to 10pm, the museum is open only to those 18 and above.

[image] Color Uncovered

And if you can’t get to Northern California at all, you might still be able to partake in the Exploratorium experience. As part of its long-standing commitment to science education that goes far beyond its own four walls, the museum has released two terrific iPad apps, Color Uncovered and Sound Uncovered. Both are free, and true to the museum’s mission, spirit of creativity and commitment to quality — which is as high a compliment as I can pay to a tablet application.