Fun Places to Visit
The Exploratorium, San Francisco, California
By Phil Dotree — November 18, 2010 (revised March 14, 2011)
One of San Francisco’s most famous and fun museums is the Exploratorium, which has been open to the public since 1969. Every year, the museum receives about 600,000 visitors from all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the Exploratorium is full of active exhibits that encourage direct participation and encourages scientific learning through experience. It’s one of the classic “must-see” stops in San Francisco, especially for parents with school aged children, and a favorite destination of both tourists and San Francisco natives.
San Francisco's Exploratorium is one of world's most fascinating museums, with various interactive exhibits, art and sensory experiences. (And don't forget to walk around the scenic grounds.)
The San Francisco Exploratorium was founded by one of the most famous physicists in history, Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, who was best known as one of the minds behind the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer wanted to show the world his own love of science and discovery, and he very suddenly found himself with enough time on his hands to do so—he was ejected from the academic world amidst accusations of communism thanks to the McCarthy trials. Undeterred, Oppenheimer gradually raised enough money to start a scientific learning center that would combine natural phenomena with a hands-on, engaging approach.
Interestingly, the Exploratorium was the first independent museum to have a website and has won four Webby Awards for bringing science to the public.
When the Exploratorium opened in the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts in 1969, it wasn’t immediately heralded as a success. Visitors gradually learned about the museum, mainly through word of mouth, as Oppenheimer had only secured a very small amount of funding and advertising was effectively out of the question. The museum built its reputation with brilliant and unique exhibits, but the focus of the Exploratorium has always been on scientific honesty and education. None of the exhibits present anything other than natural phenomena and there’s very little of the sensationalist tendencies of other hands-on museums. Oppenheimer wanted the San Francisco Exploratorium to excite students and encourage education, but not at the expense of his incomparable scientific integrity. His plan was to bring in top exhibits to aid science education for students of all ages, including adults.
The Exploratorium was really the first museum to take this sort of engaging approach to education and it remains the best in the world. To see how the Exploratorium differs from other museums around the country, one only needs to look at the exhibits. The exhibits in the Exploratorium are constantly being changed and updated, but a few favorites have become permanent installations. The Tactile Dome is probably the most famous of these. In the Tactile Dome, museum visitors must navigate through a completely pitch-black geodesic dome lined with various materials, relying completely on the sense of touch. It was designed by Dr. August F. Coppola—incidentally, the brother of director Francis Ford Coppola—and while it costs extra, it’s an interesting and engaging experience that’s completely unique to the Exploratorium. Before visiting the Tactile Dome, however, one should be sure to make a reservation; it’s popular enough that it’s not always available, hence the inflated price of the exhibit.
Other exhibits on display at the Exploratorium are divided into categories according to their fields of scientific study. Visitors learn about astronomy, biology, physics, and much more through exhibits that engage the eyes, ears, the sense of touch, and even the taste buds. Exploratorium.edu provides an up to date list of current exhibits, but be warned: there are quite a few of them. The Exploratorium has over 110,000 feet of floor space and presents about 400 exhibits at a time. That’s not even counting the outdoor Exploratorium’s additional exhibits like the bridge thermometer, which shows visitors how temperature creates fluctuations which can raise or lower the Golden Gate Bridge by as much as 16 feet.
Part of the interior of what will soon be the "old" exploratorium. Interestingly, the Exploratorium was the first independent museum to have a website and has won four Webby Awards for bringing science to the public.
Exhibits which are replaced usually make a return to the Exploratorium floor, so each visit to the museum can be both engaging and unique—from month-to-month, the San Francisco Exploratorium can change drastically, and this makes it ideal for repeat visitors.
The Exploratorium even claims that it invented Pi Day in 1989, a day commemorating the mathematical constant π (pi). Pi Day is celebrated on March 14 (or 3/14 in month/day date format), because 3, 1 and 4 are the three most significant digits of π in decimal form. The now-retired Exploratorium physicist Larry Shaw was apparently the driving force behind starting the museum’s annual Pi Day celebration. On March 12, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HRES 224, a non-binding resolution recognizing March 14, 2009, as National Pi Day.
The floor of the Exploratorium is often home to special presentations and art displays in addition to the usual cavalcade of excellent scientific education. A standard month of events at San Francisco’s Exploratorium might include everything from a cow’s eyes dissection to music concerts. The Exploratorium is also famous for its artist residencies, in which a dozen or so artists annually are invited to create installations on the museum floor. Most of these installations follow in the stated purpose of the Exploratorium and encourage interactivity and education. In other words, they don’t simply make the Exploratorium’s art exhibits feel like paintings hanging in a museum; there’s a definite focus on Oppenheimer’s original vision for everyone working for the San Francisco Exploratorium, including artists and the occasional musician.
That vision is clearly present in the Exploratorium’s Internet presence. In the 21st century, the Exploratorium has admirably adapted to changing media, and now has an enormous website with hundreds of interactive pages that carry on in the spirit of the physical exhibits. This includes a lot of Flash animations that mimic the exhibits of the San Francisco Exploratorium. For anyone planning a visit, videos and streaming media allow for a way to get an idea of some of the Exploratorium’s various exhibits, seminars, and presentations. Web videos can be viewed via computer or phone, and recently the Exploratorium even opened a Twitter account.
There’s no substitute for the San Francisco Exploratorium when it comes to smart, engaging exhibits that are both inspiring and educational. For a family holiday, the Exploratorium’s a great stop and well worth the money. Adult tickets cost $15, kids over 3 are $10, seniors and students pay $12 and children under 3 or free. Personally, I’d wait until the first Wednesday of each month when admission is free or buy a San Francisco City Pass for discounted rates—the Exploratorium is interesting and unique enough that you might find yourself making multiple visits.
Editor's Note: The Exploratorium will be relocating to a larger, more impressive home on San Franciso Bay's Piers 15 and 17 (see the sidebar at left). In the meantime, you can still enjoy the endlessly fascinating (not to mention immensely appealing) Exploratorium—it will remain open to the public in the Palace of Fine Arts for the foreseeable future.
Phil Dotree has written over 2,000 articles on various subjects for many websites and news sites (Fark, Digg.com, etc.). He has been featured on the Howard Stern show and CNN.com.