Experimental physicist and professor Frank Oppenheimer, long after he worked on the Manhattan Project, saw that the public had little understanding of science and technology. His solution was The Exploratorium, a different kind of museum that opened in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts. He called it his “San Francisco project.” There were no “Do Not Touch” signs. Instead, the museum’s interactive exhibits encouraged visitors to touch, to conduct experiments. Other museums took notice, and many have applied its interactive formula. The New York Times called it “a countercultural revelation.”
Science museums around the world have research facilities onsite, working somewhere behind the exhibits, doing science, exploring, seeking answers or clarification. The Exploratorium is a little different. Visitors are part of the research. “The unique part of the museum,” Semper says, “is that it is a public museum with an R&D facility that explores new territory about learning. The exhibit floor is our laboratory. We are doing research on how to create exhibits that let the public learn about the world around them.” The Exploratorium uses that research to make its roughly 600 interactive exhibits better.
In 2013, The Exploratorium moved to Piers 15 and 17 along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, tripling its display space and nearly doubling its annual visitors. “Almost 15 years ago, we realized we were running out of space,” says Rob Semper, interim executive director, who has been with the museum since 1977. The new space provided a open space to preserve and expand on Oppenheimer’s vision. The new location near the pier inspired more exhibits focused on the environment. Research vessels can also dock by the museum. “We benefit from getting live broadcasts from the vessels,” he says. The museum has also added areas for visitors to make things based on what they learn from exhibits. The new Observation Gallery offers 360-degree views of the city and bay. The Wired Pier collects data overtime with sensors in the water and attached to the museum’s roof. Showing visitors how “human activities” and weather conditions affect air quality.
Attendance revenue, contributions from donors, and grants from foundations like the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Education fund the private nonprofit. Roughly 900,000 visitors from around the globe visit the museum each year. It’s not 1969 anymore. The museum’s website claims 50,000 pages of content. Visitors can experience exhibits virtually. Schools can incorporate “Science Snacks,” an online library of free, hands-on science-based activities for grades 6-12, into instruction. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) initiatives such as its partnership with the San Francisco Symphony where visitors explore the science of sound. There are also apps. How Many Saturdays? deviates from standard units of time, like minutes and days, for lightning strikes on Earth, time as experienced on other planets, or farts.
The museum’s entrepreneurial endeavor, Exploratorium Global Studios, seeks to expand the museum’s impact by sharing ideas and creating exhibits for science museums around the globe. It’s currently working with groups such as Village of Homewood to create a community science center and museum. The Exploratorium also works with science museums in Turkey, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing.
And if the idea of leaving the kids at home and enjoying a cocktail while learning about science appeals to prospective guests, the Exploratorium is the place to go, says Semper. “We are connecting with an adult audience,” he says. The museum has a weekly adult-only event in the evenings called After Dark. The program changes every week, and guests can learn about everything from matter and cocktails to food pairings and sex.
“At the heart of what we do, we are trying to empower individuals to ask questions and to find the answers,” Semper says.
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Photo Credit: Peretz Partensky