The Exploratorium in San Francisco is not your average museum. In fact, it’s pretty much unlike any other museum I’ve visited so I won’t call it that. It’s an imagination-boosting, mind-bending, tinker-encouraging, eye-opening, fun-filled space for science and discovery. It was another stop during our recent trip to San Francisco with Disney Canada and Travel San Francisco that left us filled with awe and wonder.
Our group was guided around the building by Rob Semper, Exploratorium Executive Associate Director. In about an hour we learned about the history of this educational centre and the future of the learning laboratory that builds thought-provoking exhibits, tools, programs, and experiences that ignite curiosity. I’ve heard it described as “part Willy Wonka’s factory and part high school shop class”, which is pretty spot on.
History of The Exploratorium
“It makes you an active learner and is designed to encourage curiosity.”
The Exploratorium opened up at its brand new location at Pier 15 — along the Embarcadero, below Coit Tower — back in April of this year although it was originally founded in 1969 and lived in the Palace of Fine Arts until that time. This was all the brain-child of physicist Frank Oppenheimer:
“He’d been a university professor and worked beside his brother, J. Robert Oppenheimer (known to some as the “father” of the atomic bomb), on the Manhattan Project of the 1940s. Barred from pursuing scientific research during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, Frank retreated to small-town Colorado and became a cattle rancher. Before long, his passion for knowledge and learning led him back to teaching, and he began to share his view of the world with students at the local high school.
Considering the richness of his own life experiences, Frank was no typical science teacher. He put down the textbook and filled his classroom with the hands-on tools and materials that had become his trademark and that would ultimately lead him to create the Exploratorium. In 1969, Frank’s dream of transforming science education brought him to San Francisco and to the cavernous—and very empty—Palace of Fine Arts, which was once part of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco’s Marina District.
Frank poured heart and soul into his “San Francisco Project,” working alongside the artists, educators, and developers whose job it was to build and maintain Exploratorium exhibits and help visitors use them. He served as the museum’s director until just before his death in 1985.”
Now at 330,000 square feet, The Exploratorium has three times the size of its previous space and offers hundreds of additional exhibits along with 1.5 acres of freely accessible public space at Piers 15 and 17.
Semper told our group that the whole idea is to get people in the mood to play and you’ll find plenty of opportunities to do just that in The Exploratorium’s galleries. These include Human Phenomena (West Gallery), Tinkering (South Gallery), Seeing and Listening (Central Gallery), Living Systems (East Gallery), Landscape Observation (Bay Observatory Gallery), and the outdoor gallery.
The Tinkering Studio is inspired by the Maker movement, like Maker Faire events, 3D printing, and all that fun stuff. If you look closely at the instructions and information placards on the exhibits you might even find one that was built by Oppenheimer himself.
You can touch, turn, crank, swing, and pull everything. From optical illusions to mechanics, all of the exhibits are built and repaired on-site and staff are aptly called “Explainers”. The Explainers give demos including the hourly cow’s eye dissection in the Life Sciences area. However, Semper said that they don’t want to explain everything to you – the goal is to get you exploring during your visit.
A highlight for us, aside from all of the hands-on fun and learning, was the Bay Observatory Gallery. You could check out recorded fog and weather patterns on relief maps with cool overlaid projections then turn and look right outside at the bay (and step out onto a large patio area). It supplied some very San Francisco-specific content for us, learning about atmospheric and geological conditions, the bay, the endless steamroller of fog in the sky, and more.
Visit The Exploratorium in San Francisco
Located at Pier 15, you can either spend a full day at The Exploratorium or walk between the popular tourist-oriented Pier 39 and/or the Ferry Building Marketplace at Pier 1. Be sure to check out the hours of operation to give yourself enough time to play and explore (I’d say at least 2 hours, with kids or not). You can grab a bite at one of the eateries on site and sit indoors or venture outside into their pier-side courtyard where you’ll find even more exhibits and functional works of art.
The Exploratorium is a captivating experience for all ages and they also have adult-only “After Dark” evenings for 18+. Semper actually told us that 2/3 of their audience is over the age of 18 and 1/2 of those have children. Check out their special events calendar when planning your visit.