Exploratorium is a museum in
San Francisco that allows visitors to
explore the world through science, art, and human perception. Its
mission is to create inquiry-based experiences that transform learning
worldwide. It has been described by the New York Times as the most
important science museum to have opened since the mid-20th century, an
achievement attributed to "the nature of its exhibits, its
wide-ranging influence and its sophisticated teacher training
program". Characterized as "a mad scientist's penny arcade, a
scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into
one", the participatory nature of its exhibits and its
self-identification as a center for informal learning has led to it
being cited as the prototype for participatory museums around the
Exploratorium was founded by physicist and educator Frank
Oppenheimer and opened in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts, its home
until January 2, 2013. On April 17, 2013, the
at Piers 15 and 17 on San Francisco's Embarcadero. The historic
interior and exterior of Pier 15 was renovated extensively prior to
the move, and is divided into several galleries mainly separated by
content, including the physics of seeing and listening (Light and
Sound), Human Behavior, Living Systems, Tinkering (including
electricity and magnetism), the Outdoor Gallery, and the Bay
Observatory Gallery, which focuses on local environment, weather, and
Since the museum's founding, over 1,000 participatory exhibits have
been created, approximately 600 of which are on the floor at any given
time. The exhibit-building workshop space is contained within the
museum and is open to view. In addition to the public exhibition
Exploratorium has been engaged in the professional
development of teachers, science education reform, and the promotion
of museums as informal education centers since its founding. Since
Oppenheimer's death in 1985, the
Exploratorium has expanded into other
domains, including its 50,000-page website and two iPad apps on sound
and color. It has also inspired an international network of
participatory museums working to engage the public with general
science education. The new
Exploratorium building is also working
to showcase environmental sustainability efforts as part of its goal
to become the largest net-zero museum in the country.
Exploratorium offers visitors a variety of ways—including
exhibits, webcasts, websites and events—to explore and understand
the world around them. In 2011, the
Exploratorium received the
National Science Board
National Science Board 2011 Public Service Science Award for its
contributions to public understanding of science and engineering.
1.1 Founding and early years
1.2 Move to Piers 15 and 17
2 Architecture and design
2.1 Renovation of Piers 15 and 17
3.1 Osher West Gallery: Human Behavior
3.2 South Gallery: Tinkering
3.3 Bechtel Central Gallery: Seeing and Listening
3.4 East Gallery: Living Systems
3.5 Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery
3.6 Outdoor Gallery
3.7 Public space
4 Educational programs
4.1 Teacher Institute
4.2 Informal learning programs
4.3 Educational outreach
6.5 Global Studios
7 Visiting the museum
7.1 Hours and access
7.3 Related points of interest
9 External links
Exploratorium's main floor, in its original Palace of Fine Arts
Founding and early years
Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the Exploratorium
Exploratorium is the brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer, an
experimental physicist and university professor. Oppenheimer, who
worked on the
Manhattan Project with his brother J. Robert
Oppenheimer, was diverted from an academic career when he was forced
to resign from his position at the
University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota in 1949 as
a result of an inquiry by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
He was blacklisted from academic positions across the country, and
withdrew with his family to run a Colorado cattle ranch for almost a
Oppenheimer also began lending a hand with science projects of local
high school students, eventually becoming the sole science teacher at
the high school in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The field trips and
experiments he did with his high school students would become a
blueprint for the hands-on methods of teaching and learning he would
later bring to the Exploratorium.:115–121
When Oppenheimer was invited to join the University of Colorado's
physics department in 1959, he found himself less interested in
traditional laboratory research and much more interested in exploring
methods of provoking curiosity and inquiry. He received a grant from
the National Science Foundation, which he used to build models of
nearly a hundred science experiments.:136–137 This "Library of
Experiments" would become the core of the
collection, and was the forerunner of the
Exploratorium Cookbook, a
manual explaining how to build these basic science exhibits.
Convinced of the need for public museums to supplement science
curricula at all levels, he toured Europe and studied museums on a
Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965. Three European museums, encountered
during that year, served as important influences on the founding of
the Exploratorium: the Palais de la Découverte, which displayed
models to teach scientific concepts and employed students as
demonstrators, a practice that directly inspired the Exploratorium's
much-lauded High School Explainer Program; the South Kensington Museum
of Science and Art, which Oppenheimer and his wife visited frequently;
Deutsches Museum in Munich, the world's largest science
museum, which had a number of interactive displays that impressed the
Back in the United States, Oppenheimer was invited to do the initial
planning for a new branch of the Smithsonian, but he turned it down to
work on what he called his "
San Francisco project". In 1967, the
Oppenheimers came to
San Francisco with a view towards opening an
independent museum of their own. Oppenheimer sought funding and
support for the endeavor using a grassroots approach, bringing a
written proposal and some handmade exhibits with him as he visited
scientists, businesses, city and school officials, relatives, and
friends. Many prominent scientists and cultural figures endorsed the
project, and the offers of support in conjunction with a $50,000 grant
San Francisco Foundation made the museum realizable.
In late August 1969, the
Exploratorium opened with little fanfare at
the Palace of Fine Arts. Oppenheimer "simply opened the doors".:152
Although the building needed many improvements, Oppenheimer couldn't
afford to make the changes, and decided to allow the public to come
and watch exhibits being built and changes being made as part of the
participatory ethos of the institution.:128–152 An early
proposal would have erected a wall between the workshop where exhibits
were being developed and the main visitor areas. Instead, Oppenheimer
insisted that the workshop be placed without a wall, right next to the
main entrance so that visitors could experience "the way a shop smells
when you burn the wood in a saw, or smell the oil from a
lathe".:156 Above the workshop was a sign, made by the wife of
George Gamow, a physicist, educator, and friend of Oppenheimer who had
died just a year before the opening of the Exploratorium.:152,157
The inscription said "Here Is Being Created the
Community Museum Dedicated to Awareness".:157 (Today, a copy of
this motto is inscribed above the main entrance to the new
Exploratorium at Pier 15.)
Oppenheimer served as the museum’s director until his death in 1985.
Dr. Robert L. White served as director from 1987 to 1990. Dr. Goéry
Delacôte served as executive director from 1991 until 2005. Dr.
Dennis Bartels served as executive director of the
2006 to 2016. In June 2016, the
Exploratorium welcomed its newest
director, Chris Flink. The museum has expanded greatly since the
1980s, increasing outreach, expanding programs for educators, creating
an expanded Web presence, and forming museum partnerships around the
Move to Piers 15 and 17
Exploratorium relocated from the
Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts to Piers 15
and 17, located between the
San Francisco Ferry Building and Pier 39
San Francisco Embarcadero, in April 2013. The Piers location
was identified by
Goéry Delacôte and then-board chairman Van Kasper
as a potential space for relocation in 2004.:11 In 2005, the San
Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution exempting the
museum’s 66-year lease of the piers from San Francisco’s
competitive bidding process due to its unique nature as a cultural and
educational institution. Groundbreaking for the project, which
required substantial construction and renovation, occurred on October
19, 2010. The
Exploratorium holds a 66-year lease on the piers with
the Port of San Francisco. Exhibits are currently only viewable at the
Pier 15 campus; Pier 17 houses some staff, with the option for future
Piers 15 and 17 are historic piers, built in 1931 and 1912
respectively.:21 In 1954, the area between the piers was infilled
and paved over. This infill was removed as part of the construction
phase, restoring the space between the piers to public plazas, a
pedestrian bridge, and open water.
Architecture and design
Renovation of Piers 15 and 17
Rust Wedge" display shows the enormous expansive force of
Exploratorium campus comprises 330,000 sq ft
(31,000 m2) of indoor and outdoor exhibit space, and includes 1.5
acres (0.61 ha) of freely accessible public space. The exhibits
are housed in and around Pier 15, which extends over 800 ft
(240 m) over the Bay.
Exploratorium at Pier 15 was designed by architecture firm
EHDD. Nibbi Brothers served as the General Contractor, and AGA
(Architectural Glass and Aluminum) as the Glazing Contractor. The
piers had been neglected for decades leading up to the
Exploratorium’s move, and extensive renovation and repair was
required.:11 Nearly two thirds of the pilings under Pier 15 were
repaired, including almost every piling needed to provide structural
integrity, and new pilings were sunk.:24 The removal of the
parking lot between the piers was done slowly over the two years of
construction, and the debris from the removal was captured and
recycled.:67 Several pilings were left in the water between the
piers, both for aesthetic reasons and to support future
An effort was made in the construction of the new location to preserve
the historic elements of Pier 15. The Bay Observatory was the only new
structure added to the site. The east end of the pier was cleaned of
lead paint, revealing historic lettering underneath; designers chose
to preserve the lettering rather than paint it over.:67 As a
result, the traces of the shipping lines that originally frequented
the pier can still be seen. Some of the preservation efforts presented
challenges in design, however; historic windows created energy losses
that had to be offset elsewhere, and the historic interior trusswork
was mainly restored rather than removed, meaning that the upper-level
staff offices had to be built around them.:30
Other challenges to the design of the facilities were presented by the
museum’s sustainability initiatives. The use of natural light
whenever possible challenged exhibit designers relying on carefully
controlled light levels; this was solved by using curtains and
glare-reducing paint colors.:32 Other conflicts between
construction and energy use included the glass in the Observatory,
which would have presented a problem in cooling the building on warm
days. This was overcome by adding fritted glass to the windows in thin
horizontal lines through the panes to decrease the transparency
without affecting the views.:85 The fritting also makes the
reflective surfaces of the Bay Observatory safe for birds.
Pier 15 incorporated two seismic joints as part of its seismic
retrofit, one separating the Bay Observatory from the Pier 15 shed and
the other separating the entire pier from the land. This second joint
ensures that the entire pier will move independently from the land
mass in the event of an earthquake, significantly reducing the
potential torsional stress.:83 The café at the west end of the
Exploratorium is named the Seismic Joint in honor of the joint, which
cuts through the area of the building where the café is
The aesthetic of the project was defined as "industrial naval chic" in
keeping with the pier’s history.:63
The design scheme for the Exploratorium's Seaglass Restaurant was
inspired by the exhibit Color of Water.
The design aesthetic for both the Seismic Joint and Seaglass
Restaurant was created by designer Olle Lundberg and based on the
exhibit Color of Water. The bar at Seaglass features a specially
designed version of
Exploratorium artist Shawn Lani’s exhibit Icy
Exploratorium at Pier 15 has a net-zero energy goal as part of its
overall sustainability efforts. Setting this net-zero goal means that,
while in operation, The
Exploratorium will produce more energy on-site
than it will consume on an annual basis. The museum highlights its
sustainability efforts in visible ways throughout the museum as part
of a stated intention to lead by example.
The Exploratorium, in order to reach its net-zero energy goal,
produces energy with a roof-mounted array of photovoltaics. There are
5,874 PV modules on the roof, totaling 78,712 square feet
(7,312.6 m2), with a projected year-1 yield of 1.3 MW-AC/square
foot (13.9 MW-AC/m2), or a total year-1 yield of 2,113,715
kWh. Any surplus energy generated is intended to be fed back
into the utility grid, as the projected annual energy use for the
building totals at 1,275,936 kWh.
Diagram of bay water heating and cooling system at The Exploratorium
In addition to solar power, the museum makes use of an
that takes advantage of the relatively constant, moderate temperature
of the bay water under the piers, which is 50 to 65 °F (10 to
18 °C), to heat and cool the building. The bay water is filtered
and sterilized before it is brought into a 4,000 US gallons
(15 m3) cistern below the pier, where it is held for use. When
needed, the bay water is moved to a titanium heat exchanger, of which
the building has two, where it is either used to heat or cool water
that is cycled through a system of thermally activated radiant
slabs. There are 27 miles (43 km) of plastic tubing in the
radiant heating system in the floor, creating 82 different heating and
cooling zones with distinct control systems. After the bay water
passes through the heat exchangers, it is returned to the San
Francisco Bay as allowed by a permit issued by the
Water Quality Control Board.
Most of the energy savings are expected to come from using the bay
water as a heat sink for the building’s cooling needs. When the
temperature of the bay water is below that of the chilled water return
from the radiant pipes, which is the case for most of the year in the
Bay Area’s temperate climate, the system works in waterside
economizer mode. In this mode, the cooling loads are met either
entirely or partially through passive heat exchange between the colder
bay water and the warmer return water, greatly reducing the
building’s energy needs.
Exploratorium at Pier 15 has a separate system for its ventilation
needs, pairing a dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS) with displacement
ventilation distribution to bring outdoor air into the building. By
integrating radiant heating and cooling and displacement ventilation,
Exploratorium has greatly reduced the portion of its
that relies on forced air. Reducing the size of a building’s forced
air system has the associated benefits of both lower energy loads as
well as reduced ductwork, both of which are cost-saving.
Exploratorium has multiple features designed to reduce its water
consumption. Two large cisterns under the structural beams connecting
the southeast pilings capture up to 338,000 US gallons (1,280 m3)
of rainwater and fog runoff for reuse in the facility. The
plumbing is designed for water conservation, with waterless urinals
and dual-flush toilets projected to save an annual million gallons of
water. Additionally, the bay water heating and cooling system is
estimated to save two million gallons of potable water a year by
eliminating the need for traditional evaporative cooling towers.
Exploratorium at Pier 15 also makes use of natural light in the
effort to reduce energy loads. The existing building had many
clerestory windows and an overhead skylight that runs the length of
the interior space. In compliance with historic preservation
requirements, the building’s façade was left mostly unchanged,
allowing for much of the interior space to benefit from the existing
architecture’s ample daylight. The retrofit did include the addition
of high performance glazing to the existing windows.
In January 2014, the
Exploratorium was awarded LEED Platinum
certification. According to the New York Times, "After a two-year
post-opening shakedown period of monitoring and adjusting the systems,
Exploratorium hopes to become the largest net-zero-energy-use
museum in the United States and possibly the world." The
Exploratorium is also turning its commitment to sustainability into a
learning experience by showcasing elements of the building’s green
design on site.
The new site contains over 600 exhibits, 25% of which were developed
specifically for the Pier 15 site. With the exception of some art
installations, all exhibits are developed and made onsite. The
indoor and outdoor spaces are divided into six galleries, each
highlighting a specific content group. Many exhibits are mobile,
however, and move among different galleries; similarly, not all
exhibits fall into distinct categories.
Exhibits cover a range of subject areas, including human perception
(such as vision, hearing, learning and cognition), the life sciences,
physical phenomena (such as light, motion, electricity, waves and
resonance, and magnetism), local environment (water, wind, fog, rain,
sun, and other elements, as well as cityscape, landscape, and the
flora and fauna of the Bay) and human behavior (such as cooperation,
competition, and sharing).
Osher West Gallery: Human Behavior
Visitors collaborate to make a smoke ring at the Exploratorium's
previous location at the Palace of Fine Arts
The West Gallery focuses on human behavior. Its signage and exhibits
encourage visitors to play with perception; investigate memory,
emotion, and judgment; and experiment with how people cooperate,
compete, and share. It holds exhibits such as Poker Face (partners try
to assess when someone is bluffing), Trust Fountain (an experimental
exhibit from the museum’s National Science Foundation-funded Science
of Sharing project, this two-person drinking fountain is based on the
Prisoner’s dilemma, a classic scenario centering on negotiation and
trust), and the Tactile Dome, a pitch-black environment visitors
explore by touch, which was originally designed by August Coppola.
The West Gallery also included the temporary exhibition The Changing
Face of What is Normal: Mental Health, which showcased the personal
artifacts of patients from the now-decommissioned Willard Psychiatric
Center, which was on view through April 2014.
The West Gallery also houses the Kanbar Forum, a cabaret-style theater
that will host music events, science lectures, and other programs when
it opens in summer 2013.
South Gallery: Tinkering
The South Gallery is a workshop area where visitors can engage in
learning through hands-on making, located directly across from the
Exploratorium's own internal exhibit workshop, which is also open to
their view. Oppenheimer wanted visitors to be able to “smell the
oil”, and insisted that the usually hidden exhibit-building
activities be on display as an exhibit in its own right. Exhibits
in the South Gallery highlight a
DIY aesthetic, and include Animation
Stations where visitors can make their own stop-motion films.
Artworks on display include the Tinkerer’s Clock (a 22-foot-high
clock constructed by artist Tim Hunkin, with figurines in his noted
cartoon style that can be manipulated by visitors and unfold into a
clockface on the hour); and Rolling Through The Bay (a sculpture made
by artist Scott Weaver over the course of 37 years, utilizing over
100,000 toothpicks and depicting many of the Bay Area’s iconic
landmarks, through which a ping-pong ball can roll on one of several
Bechtel Central Gallery: Seeing and Listening
A visitor investigates the reflective properties of the Giant Mirror
in the Central Gallery of the
Exploratorium at Pier 15.
The Bechtel Central gallery houses many of the "classic" Exploratorium
exhibits, including many of those that have been on display since the
very earliest years of the museum. It includes a mix of new and old
exhibits that investigate physics and the perception of light, color,
and sound, such as Sound Bite (a demonstration of hearing with the
jawbone instead of the ears) and Bright Black (a trick of perception
convinces viewers that an object is white when it is almost entirely
East Gallery: Living Systems
The East Gallery houses a much-expanded selection of life sciences
exhibits. Many exhibits relate directly to the immediate local
environment, such as the Glass Settling Plate (barnacles and other
creatures are grown on a plate in the Bay, then put live under a
mobile microscope to be observed from both above and below) and the
Algae Chandelier (visitors can pump air to nourish overhead tanks of
colorful phytoplankton). Other exhibits explore different biological
systems and processes, such as the imaging station with mouse stem
cells, the live cow’s eye dissections, and the Live Chicken Embryo
(one of the oldest of the Living Systems exhibits, showing live
chicken embryos at different stages of development).
Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery
The Bay Observatory building is the only new building constructed on
the Exploratorium’s campus. It holds the Seaglass restaurant on its
lower level and exhibits on the upper level relating to the waterfront
and the cityscape. The gallery focuses on what visitors can see in
real time, including the movement of clouds and tides, the changing
waterfront, the movement of ships, and interpretation of oceanographic
data. The Observatory has glass walls on all four sides to facilitate
observation. Many of the exhibits were developed specifically for the
location, such as Oculus (a circular opening in the ceiling that
allows the entire gallery to be used as a timepiece, tracking seasons,
solstices, and the sun’s movement), Visualizing the Bay (a 3-D
topographic map of the Bay Area that allows visitors to see real data
mapped over the landscape, such as the movement of fog and the
salinity of the Bay over the course of days or years), and the Map
Table (an assortment of historic and contemporary maps and atlases
displaying different views and perspectives on the landscape).
The Bay Observatory also houses the Wired Pier project, which consists
of more than a dozen sensors on and around the Bay Observatory that
stream real-time data about the surrounding environment, such as
quality of air and bay water, weather, tides and pollution, and
compile it into interactive visualizations.
Mist from Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Bridge drifts over the water between
Piers 15 and 17 at the Exploratorium.
The Outdoor Gallery comprises the north, south, and east aprons of
Pier 15, and extends through both ticketed and unticketed space. Focus
is on direct interaction with the Bay environment, which can be seen
in exhibits such as Color of Water (an installation of 32 distinct
color swatches suspended below the rail surrounding the pier so that
visitors can investigate the changing colors of the Bay’s water).
Another notable exhibit is Remote Rains, which allows visitors to
choose a past rainstorm as profiled by the Hydrometeorology Testbed,
which is then recreated by a rain machine that duplicates the
frequency, size, and velocity of the raindrops, giving a tangible
NOAA research data on storms.
Along the publicly accessible bridge connecting Piers 15 and 17,
Fujiko Nakaya created an installation called Fog Bridge #72494
that creates bursts of fog for six minutes every half-hour as the
first in a series of large-scale temporary installations called Over
the Water. The Fog Bridge is 150 feet (46 m) long and makes
use of 800 nozzles to create the fog, which Nakaya hopes will inspire
visitors to pay attention to the nature of one of San Francisco’s
best-known weather patterns. Although originally slated to be
temporary, it is now on permanent display. A desalination system,
located in Pier 17, conditions bay water for use in the artwork.
Exploratorium campus includes 1.5 acres (0.61 ha) of publicly
accessible open space. This includes the plaza facing on the
Embarcadero, the connector bridge between Piers 15 and 17 where Fog
Bridge # 72494 is installed, the south apron of Pier 17, and the east
and south aprons of Pier 15. This public space overlaps with the
Outdoor Gallery, and includes some notable exhibits, such as the
Aeolian Harp (an expanded version of the original installation by Doug
Hollis on the roof of the
Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts,
first created in collaboration with
Frank Oppenheimer in 1976) and
the Bay Windows (visitors spin disks filled with samples of Bay mud,
sand, and gravel gathered from five distinct regions of the Bay
The lower level of the Bay Observatory Building houses the Seaglass
Restaurant, which, like the Seismic Joint Cafe, is open to unticketed
members of the public. Both the Seismic Joint and Seaglass are run by
Loretta Keller, chef-owner at Coco500, in partnership with Bon Appetit
Exploratorium seeks to bring hands-on inquiry to education,
including training teachers in the teaching of science. Between
1995 and 2012, an estimated 6,400 educators from 48 states and 11
countries directly participated in
Teachers from the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute examine the
"String Thing" they built
The Teacher Institute, founded in 1984, is an Exploratorium-based
professional development program geared towards middle and high school
science teachers. In addition to providing workshops at the museum
that teach hands-on and inquiry-based teaching methods, it provides
coaches and support for novice teachers. Studies have shown that while
30 to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five
years, the retention rate for teachers who go through the Teacher
Institute is 85 to 90 percent.
The Teacher Institute is also home to the Iron Science Teacher, a
national competition that celebrates innovation and creativity in
science teaching, which originated at the
Exploratorium in San
Francisco. Parodying the cult Japanese TV program, Iron Chef, this
competition showcases science teachers as they devise classroom
activities using a particular ingredient — an everyday item such as
a plastic bag, milk carton, or nail. Contestants are currently or
formerly part of the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute and compete
before a live audience for the title of "Iron Science Teacher". Shows
are also archived on the Exploratorium's website.
Two out of three teachers applying were being turned away due to space
limitations, by the time the
Exploratorium closed at its former
location; following the move to the Piers, the
Exploratorium has been
expanding its professional development for teachers through the
Teacher Institute. As of 2013[update], two
MOOC courses were also
being made available through
MOOC provider Coursera. One course
integrates engineering into middle and high school STEM classrooms,
and the other integrates making and tinkering activities into
elementary and middle school classrooms.
Informal learning programs
Exploratorium operates several programs centering on informal
learning. The Institute for Inquiry (IFI) is a professional
development program of the
Exploratorium geared towards educators,
scientists, administrators, and policymakers. The Institute is a
National Science Foundation
National Science Foundation funding and designs programs,
materials and tools to help leaders in the science education community
further the role of inquiry in elementary science education and
strengthen reform efforts. It consists of workshops and an online
library of resources available to participants in the Institute.
The Institute for Inquiry partnered with the Sonoma Valley Unified
School District on a program combining science education with English
Language Development (ELD). Data from the two-year pilot study showed
that a professional development program designed to help teachers
integrate ELD strategies into science lessons had a significant,
measurable impact on the achievement of students in both ELD and in
The Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS) is a collaboration
between the Exploratorium, the University of
California Santa Cruz,
and King's College London. CILS studies the intersection between
museums and schools as centers of informal learning with the intention
of understanding how informal science learning occurs and how informal
educational centers such as the
Exploratorium can contribute to
science education reform.
The Tinkering Studio began in 2008 as an in-house program geared
towards maker culture and a “think with your hands” approach. It
is housed within the museum in a dedicated space in the South Gallery,
where it runs free do-it-yourself activities for museum visitors; it
also shares its work with a larger audience of educators in
afterschool programs, schools, museums and other learning
environments. It is being cited as a prototype for similar programs
across the globe, including South Korea, Canada, India, and Saudi
Exploratorium also operates as afterschool tinkering
program in partnership with
San Francisco chapters of the Boys and
Girls Club. In 2012 the
Exploratorium was awarded a grant to create
California Tinkering Network, in collaboration with the Community
Science Workshops, Techbridge, the Discovery Science Center, the
California Afterschool Network, and the
California STEM Learning
Network. These organizations partner with over 20 local afterschool or
summer programs to provide STEM-enriched activities for children in
underserved communities. The initiative was designed to test an
adaptable model for providing tinkering activities to promote learning
and development in an afterschool setting.
Exploratorium also houses a number of other educational resources.
These include the Learning Commons, a library and media resource
center that houses a collection of print and digital science teaching
resources for use by regional educators; a webcast studio, located in
the Central Gallery, which produces 75 educational Webcasts from the
museum and locations around the world annually, including a live
webcast of the Mars
Curiosity Rover launch and landing; and Lifelong
Learning, which creates educational programming for children, teens,
family groups, and adults. Lifelong Learning programs further the
Exploratorium’s stated dedication to informal learning and the
museum as teaching tool, and include day camps, workshops for
families, the Homeschool Science series (in-house classes geared
specifically towards homeschooled students), the Girl’s Science
Institute (multi-day workshops geared towards girls 9-11), and
excursions for adults. The
Exploratorium has also published a number
of books, and many of the 50,000 pages on its website are hands-on
activity ideas or science experiments in the museums’ signature
Exploratorium operates several educational outreach programs. The
Community Outreach Program works with community organizations to
provide exhibit-based educational activities for underserved children
and families in the local community. The
Exploratorium is also
home to XTech, a science education program for underserved middle
school students. Begun in 2006, XTech was primarily funded by a
National Science Foundation
National Science Foundation grant and provided afterschool activities
in science, engineering, and technology in partnership with two
community-based organizations in the Bay Area. XTech serves over 100
students a year in addition to 10-15 youth facilitators.
Exploratorium Explainer program, which has been operating since
the museum opened, hires and trains high school students and young
educators each year. The program tripled its capacity, hiring 300
Explainers, following the relocation to Pier 15 in 2013. The
Explainers function essentially as docents. There are two types of
Explainers: High School Explainers, who are teenagers, and Field Trip
Explainers, who are college students and young educators. The program
was conceived by
Frank Oppenheimer in the early days of the museum. He
wanted to provide a visitor experience that was a learning experience
in a museum context and allowed for guesswork and the absence of
"correct" answers. He felt young people would be more capable than
adults at conveying the open-ended experience he was looking for. His
plan with the Explainers was to "loosen up the whole feeling of
learning." Oppenheimer also intended the program to allow students to
experience learning outside the framework of their school systems. The
Explainers come from a highly diverse array of socioeconomic
backgrounds, and he hoped they would bring families and friends who
would not otherwise be likely to visit a museum.:169–174 Both the
High School and Field Trip Explainers are paid positions.
The Explainer Program was inspired by the staff demonstrations Frank
observed at the Palais de la Decouverte, although the facilitators at
the Palais when Oppenheimer visited were either graduate students or
practicing scientists. The success of the Exploratorium’s Explainer
program led the Palais to eventually hire teenage explainers of their
own. Former Explainers often cite their experiences at the
Exploratorium as defining elements of their success, including
several notable tech CEOs.
Walter Kitundu - Artist in Residence and MacArthur Fellow
Despite being generally thought of as a science museum, the
Exploratorium has always incorporated both science and art. As early
Frank Oppenheimer presented a paper discussing the
connections between art and science, and the role of a museum in
appealing to both casual visitors and serious students of all
The formal artist in residence program was started in 1974, but
artworks such as Bob Miller’s Sun Painting were commissioned shortly
after the museum was opened in 1969. Since the founding of the
artist in residence program, over 250 artworks in various disciplines
have been created.
Each year, the museum invites ten to twenty artists to participate in
residencies ranging from two weeks to two years. Artists-in-residence
work with staff and the visiting public to create original
installations, exhibits, or performances. Artists are given a stipend,
housing, travel expenses, and technical support, and they have at
their disposal the Exploratorium's full array of metal and woodworking
shops and materials. Two artists-in-residence who went on to become
staff members have been awarded
MacArthur Fellowship "genius" grants:
Walter Kitundu and Ned Kahn.
The new Embarcadero campus opened with more than 40 pieces by
prominent artists, including Douglas Hollis, Golan Levin, Lucky
Dragons, Amy Balkin, and Fujiko Nakaya. The Center for Art and
Inquiry, a new project at the new location, is an initiative to
catalyze and orchestrate art across the museum.
Exploratorium has an equally long history with musical, film and
other performances. Participating artists and performers included
Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Ali
Akbar Khan, Trimpin, and The Mermen.
In addition to the artists in residence, the museum’s Osher Fellows
Program hosts 4-8 resident scholars, scientists, educators, and
artists every year. Notable Osher Fellows have included Walter Murch,
James Crutchfield, Christian de Duve, Arthur Ganson, Tim Hunkin, Lewis
Hyde, Evelyn Fox Keller, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Rosamond Wolff
Purcell, Oliver Sacks, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Juan Felipe
There are hands-on activities for younger visitors (under 14 - needs
confirmation). The pendulum art activity has a youngster picking four
different color markers. The youngster then pushes a large board
suspended by 4 wires to develop a pattern. At the youngster's say so,
the attendant places a selected color into an arm and lowers it onto a
white paper weighted to the board. The marker patterns the movement of
the board. After 4 markers are done, the project is complete, signed
by the 'young artist', and taken home.
In 2007, the
Exploratorium was highlighted in the book Forces For Good
as one of the 12 most effective non-profits in the United States, and
was the only West Coast institution and only museum to make the
list. It has inspired science museums worldwide, from the Reuben
H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego to the
Garden of Archimedes
Garden of Archimedes in
Florence, Italy. In 2003, The Oxford Companion to the History of
Modern Science noted that about 400 science centers in 43 countries
were established after the example of the Exploratorium.
In 2012, 570,000 people visited the Exploratorium; 55% were adults and
45% were children. Geographically, 52% were from the Bay Area, 24%
from the rest of California, 14% from other states, and 10% outside
the US. Some 36% received free or discounted admission, and 44,000
attended on free admission days. Prior to the relocation, 97,000
students and chaperons visited the museum each year; of these, 67,000
participated in the Field Trip program. It was estimated that 180
million people visited
Exploratorium exhibits at science centers and
other locations worldwide.
Annual attendance at the new Pier 15 location was anticipated to
exceed one million. However, in August 2013, the New York Times
reported that although attendance had soared, revenues still fell
short of goals, forcing the
Exploratorium to lay off around 1/5 of its
staff. Museum officials had decided not to make a big publicity
push upon reopening, fearing the overcrowding experienced by the
California Academy of Sciences in 2008, but this was later viewed as
"an opportunity lost". A staffer (expecting himself to be laid
off) observed that the
Exploratorium seemed to be "moving from
visionary, internally developed work to work-for-hire for other
museums around the world”, as the management scrambled to earn more
money from consulting for other organizations to replace unrealized
admissions revenue. On April 17, 2014 the
that attendance in the first year since re-opening was 1.1 million
visitors, and that other key statistics had doubled or tripled.
Solar Eclipse webcast at the old Exploratorium.
Online since 1993, the
Exploratorium was one of the first museums to
build a site on the World Wide Web. The site serves 13 million
visitors each year. It has received six Webby Awards since 1997,
including four for Best Science Website and one for Best Education
website, and has been an honoree an additional ten times.
The Exploratorium's website is an extension of the experiences on the
museum's floor and provides a large number of hands-on activities and
exhibits for online-only visitors. The
Exploratorium also broadcasts
live video and/or audio directly from the museum floor (or from
satellite feeds in the field, at such locations as Antarctica or the
Belize rainforest) onto the Internet from its Webcast Studio. Webcasts
provide access to special events, scientists, and other museum
resources for audiences on the Web. Visitors to the website can hear
or view interviews with scientists, "meet" interesting people, or tour
unique locations from factories to particle accelerators.
Exploratorium has additionally released two free iPad apps, Sound
Uncovered (2013) and Color Uncovered (2011), which assist in making
its unique educational model as accessible as possible. Color
Uncovered has been downloaded more than a million times.
Exploratorium has a number of partnerships with other
organizations. One notable current partnership is with the National
Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
vessels periodically berth at the end of Pier 15 and use the working
biological labs featured in the museum to bring their research and
data to the public. A number of exhibits at the Exploratorium, such as
Remote Rains, are based on
NOAA scientists additionally
provided training for the Explainer program to assist Explainers in
explaining science to visitors based on the NOAA’s areas of
Exploratorium Global Studios initiative is an entrepreneurial
endeavor that shares resources, exhibits, and research with foreign
governments, universities, partner museums, libraries, hospitals, and
other public and private entities around the world. One area of
significant current activity for the Global Studios initiative is the
Middle East, where it hopes to assist countries that are making
long-term investments in education and transitioning to more
information-based economies. For example, the Tinkering Studio
visited a science festival in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia in the summer of
2012, where they trained a group of teachers to help thousands of
festival participants to experience the hands-on learning style
favored by the Exploratorium.
Visiting the museum
Wave Organ is an off-site
Hours and access
Exploratorium is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am-5pm, with
adults-only evening hours from 6pm-10pm on Thursdays (for visitors age
18+). The entire museum is wheelchair-accessible.
Exploratorium is located on the Embarcadero at Green Street,
between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building. The museum is
accessible by multiple modes of public transit, including BART, Muni
streetcar, bus, taxi, and pedicab. It is located 0.6 miles
(0.97 km) from the Embarcadero
BART and MUNI stations, and has
its own stop on the F streetcar line. The
Exploratorium does not own
or operate any parking lots, but is located near several publicly
accessible lots and on-street parking, including a lot directly across
the street, operated by the Port of San Francisco.
Community π Day started at the
Exploratorium by Larry Shaw and is
celebrated annually on 3/14 (March 14). Iron Science Teacher
competition (like Iron Chef) showcases science teachers as they devise
classroom activities using a particular ingredient. Monthly events
include "Full-Spectrum Science with Ron Hipschman". Every Thursday is
"After Dark" for adults.
Related points of interest
Exploratorium maintains exhibits in public Bay Area spaces. The
Exploratorium consists of 14 different exhibits relating to
the local environment, all placed outside in the
Fort Mason area and
accessible to the general public.
Wave Organ is another notable public artwork of the Exploratorium.
Created by former staff artist Peter Richards, this acoustic sculpture
is situated on a point of land jutting into the
San Francisco Bay not
far from the Exploratorium’s original
Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts location.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Exploratorium.
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Science museums in California
California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco)
California Science Center (Los Angeles)
Chabot Space and Science Center
Chabot Space and Science Center (Oakland)
Columbia Memorial Space Center
Columbia Memorial Space Center (Downey)
Discovery Cube (Orange County and Los Angeles)
Exploratorium (San Francisco)
Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science
Lawrence Hall of Science
Lawrence Hall of Science (Berkeley)
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (San Diego)
winner, 1997 award in the category Science
Nominee, 1998 award in the category Sports
winner, 1998 award in the category Science
List of winners
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