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Welcome to the Exploratorium

Last year, as San Francisco’s wonderful science museum, the Exploratorium, was preparing to move to their new space, a friend and I exchanged dire predictions. The Exploratorium has long been a favorite of science-loving families. In their funky cavern of a museum they made it cool to be inquisitive and exciting to take part in activities that might be deemed boring or just plain gross in the wider world. But as they started to promote the move to Pier 15—just down the line from the very stupidest part of San Francisco (as in, the part where all the tourists go)—longtime fans got worried.

Would they fall victim to the “pretty but vacant” revamp of the Academy of Sciences?

Would they become yet another “children’s museum” that presents cool activities but with all the science stripped out of it?

Would they cater to the quick-stop tourist who’d want to be entertained with trite and shallow content?

I decided I would keep my membership for one reason: So we could attend the members-only preview which was held Saturday.

I forgot my phone, so I don't have a lot of photos. This is the Bay Observatory with the map tables in the foreground.

I forgot my phone, so I don’t have a lot of photos. This is the Bay Observatory with the map tables in the foreground.

I’m pleased to let you know that none of our dire predictions came true, and there are many charming surprises to be had at the new Exploratorium. First, the location: Yes, it’s right down the street from the part of San Francisco no local wants to be found dead in, but it’s much more accessible to both out-of-towners and car-free city dwellers. The new site is as different from the old as possible: light and airy, part of the general bustle of the waterfront, the sort of place someone could wander into and be totally taken by surprise. There is more floor space and the elongated layout makes a visit there like a stroll through the history and future of science.

“This is like a Lamborghini versus a Volkswagen…that’s missing a cylinder,” says Chuck Mignacco, Building Operations Manager, in a video on their website. The new building is a “net zero” building that uses no fossil fuels in heating or cooling.

Many of the Exploratorium’s best features made the move intact. My daughter, of course, was thrilled to see the toilet drinking fountain right in the first lobby. Oldie-but-goody displays were scattered throughout, some updated but all with a new sheen in their new location. Like the old Exploratorium, the workshops and labs are open for view, but now they seem more accessible, more a part of what’s going on.

The new building is bigger, and they have started to make use of the space in true Exploratorium fashion. Another museum might have a slice of a large redwood trunk on display; the Exploratorium has much of the lower part of an enormous tree, including the root ball. My very favorite part of the museum is all new: the Bay Observatory. This is a lovely room upstairs that opens to a courtyard overlooking the Bay with gorgeous views of the Bay Bridge. A couple of large tables hold piles of facsimiles of old maps of California. We spent a good amount of time shuffling through the maps and talking about California past and present. The other side of the room presents a view of the Bay through displays and interactive exhibits (some of them still not finished).

This mix of old and new continued to surprise us right until the end. My daughter noticed the old “tornado maker” which we had somehow missed when we went back downstairs. She positively dragged me back up to see it, though I’d seen it enough times to know that there was no point in making a special trip for it. But right next to it was an exhibit we’d never seen before. Though she was momentarily thrilled to see her old tornado friend, our attention was grabbed for some time by the “Arp” shape maker, a device containing a pan of “oobleck” (cornstarch and water). When the pan is jiggled vigorously, the non-Newtonian fluid in the pan rises up in fascinating sculptures reminiscent of the work of Jean Arp. (By the way, if you don’t know oobleck, here is my daughter’s favorite oobleck video!)

In our two-and-a-half hours at the new building, we didn’t have enough time to see half of what’s there. But what we did see was a great taste of what’s to come—we’ll definitely be going back.

Posted in Culture, Education.


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