Day one in San Francisco took me to the Exploratorium – a massive complex out in on Pier 15 which is dedicated to exploring the world through science. Founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer (probably most notoriously known for his work on the Manhattan Project) it’s got a huge name for itself for its many tactile, interactive displays that despite have a strong focus on physics, really get you to have fun with many forms of science. In fact, a lot of grown ups I’ve met on this trip have lit up like little kids when I tell them I’m going to the Exploratorium.
The Exploratorium – interior (click to explore)
It moved into its current location from its previous venue at the Palace of Fine Arts in 2013 and is a really fun, chaotic, noisy converted pier/warehouse that, on my visit a least had a million screaming kids – and not in the annoying way the little monsters back at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago were, no these kids were actually having fun with the exhibits, not just trying to destroy them. I meet Program Director Claire Pillsbury who proudly takes me on a spin around the museum. First stop, and arguably the best part of this facility is the workshop. Claire talks me through a bit of their process dealing with the wear and tear of many of the house-made interactives. When Oppenheimer first established the museum it was done on an absolute shoestring with much of the equipment donated from private and government science labs. The workshop is no exception with lathes, welding equipment and routers looking more like they would have been tools in the Manhattan Project’s lab back in the 1940s.
Donated relic of a spot welder.
The workshop itself is separated from the rest of the museum via a very low wall or fence which means that visitors can easily see inside and the work that Exploratorium staff do. I’m totally jealous about the fact that they can rapidly prototype their interactives then wheel them through the gate and onto the museum floor to start user testing straight away. I’m even more jealous about the fact that so long as they have safety clearance, staff members can use any of the tools available, even if they need to fix their kitchen cabinets (so long as they don’t get in the way of the real work).
Looking down in to the workshop.
Also nice is that the New Media team is also well embedded in the workshop. This works brilliantly as the interactive they build inevitably have to sit with larger constructs that are welded, machined or hammered together. There is also row upon row of spare parts in boxes for the interactives (they always buy in duplicate). The boxes have very excellent names like “Electric Flame”, “Electrical Ballet” and “Cloud Chamber”.
Always buy in duplicate.
Further up Claire takes me some of the new spaces and an outside space featuring a bunch of elliptical objects Claire points out as a bit of a prototyping failure. The objects themselves look exactly like surfboards and the kids respond accordingly, jumping on them and pretending to paddle or standing up and leaning around, putting very obvious strain on the bolts that feather them to the floor. Claire informs me, however that these are not intended to be surf boards at all but rather a kind of sun dial. She laughs. The Exploratorium is really well known for doing physical engagement brilliantly. “Even we get it wrong sometimes.” she says.
The "surf boards".
Oppenheimer put this institution together on the smell of an oily rag and it shows in such a wonderful way. This is one big museum with one even bigger heart. They’ve also got a really cool shop.