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CityPASS Home  »  City Traveler Blog  »  The Exploratorium Settling Into PIER 15

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The Exploratorium Settling Into PIER 15

Visitors gaze into a mosaic of tiny mirrors to see a myriad of eyes, all their own, gazing back at them. Image by Amy Snyder © Exploratorium, All rights reserved

Since 1969, San Francisco’s Exploratorium (a CityPASS attraction) has been an icon for the inquisitive and a beacon for brainstormers. Known for being one of San Francisco's best museums and one of the world’s top science education centers, The Exploratorium has enthralled millions of visitors over the decades with its hands-on exhibits exploring biology, physics, human interaction and the environment.

Founded by famed physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium had been located on the grounds of San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts — an idyllic location with a reflecting pond, swans, walking trails and parks.

But last spring, the Exploratorium pulled stakes and moved kit and caboodle to San Francisco’s historic waterfront. Sure, any time a top attraction relocates and/or remodels, it generates a substantial buzz, but why leave such a beautiful location?

Glycerin droplets in a rotating chamber form tiny lenses that focus light rays, creating shapes and patterns. Images by Gayle Laird © Exploratorium, All rights reserved

“We moved to the waterfront to be more centrally located and to be on public transportation lines,” explained Leslie Patterson, public information officer for the Exploratorium. “While the Palace of Fine Arts property was a beautiful location, frankly, it was pretty difficult for tourists and locals to get to.”

It’s hard to argue with the accessibility of new site. The Exploratorium’s nine-acre campus spreads out between Piers 15 and 17, between the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf.

“Now, visitors can bike, walk, take the ferry, and ride BART, buses and muni,” Patterson said.

150 new exhibits
To further spur interest, 150 of its 600 exhibits are new. It divides its offerings among an Outdoor Gallery, Bay Observatory, the East Gallery’s collection of living systems, Central Gallery’s seeing and listening exhibits, South Gallery for working with hands, and the West Gallery for experiments with thoughts, feelings, and social behavior. The options for visitors are a little overwhelming.

“We expanded most broadly in our social behavior exhibits and activities on the water,” she said.

Plankton Populations is a table-sized interactive display created in collaboration with MIT and the UC Davis Center for Visualization. This exhibit shows a simulation of the world’s phytoplankton populations changing over time in response to changing ocean conditions. Visitors can use a special encoded glass lens to magnify the four major types of plankton living throughout the oceans. The data visitors explore is virtually the same as scientists at MIT use to study global plankton populations and how they may change in the future. Images by Amy Snyder © Exploratorium, All rights reserved

A few exhibit highlights:
Bay Windows is about sediments in the bay by spinning disks filled with samples of mud, sand and gravel gathered from dive regions of the San Francisco Bay.

Remote Rains — Working with NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers, storm profiles are portrayed through a rain chamber. Here visitors get a tangible taste of past storms, and the exhibit recreates the amount, size and frequency of the raindrops.

Question Bridge: Black Males holds a trans-media conversation among black men across many levels of American society. Members of the black community respond to a question and answer format to share their beliefs and values. Question Bridge: Black Males was created by Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair.

The front of Pier 15, facing the Embarcadero, the new home of the Exploratorium. Image by Amy Snyder © Exploratorium, All rights reserved

Seasons of Plankton explores how the microscopic life in San Francisco Bay is constantly evolving, and how important it is to our planet. “Polar bears are cute and worth caring about, but the change in levels of the world’s plankton is REALLY worth caring about, since that’s where are planet gets most of its oxygen,” said Patterson.

“We also have sensors in the water and in the air around our facility and on our site to monitor the carbon dioxide,” she said. “If we get too much CO2, we get acidification, which means that shellfish can’t form their shells. We’re trying to translate what we learn into visual and interactive opportunities so that people can learn about their world without it getting dumbed down.”

Visitors play with the physics of orbiting, finding that spinning a disk on its side prolongs the time and distance of the orbit. (Photo courtesy of Exploratorium)

The Science of Skateboarding
One of the Exploratorium’s community outreach projects is the Science of skateboarding exhibit outside on the pier. The staff reached out to underserved youth in the Mission District’s Jamestown Community Center to help create an authentic skateboarding exhibit that delves into the physics, engineering, mechanics, technology and mathematics related to the sport. The exhibit includes:

  • Finding the skateboard’s center of gravity
  • Particle Accelerator sensation from skating in a pool
  • The mechanics of turning trucks
  • How to do an “Ollie” and other features

Reflection of clouds on glass walls of Exploratorium’s new Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery. Image by Amy Snyder © Exploratorium, All rights reserved

Teaching teachers
On a related front, the new facility also allows the Exploratorium to accommodate more instructors into its teacher development program. “Until recently, we’ve had to turn two-thirds of teacher applicants away, but now we’ve been able to triple the capacity.” Voted the #1 science center in the world, it has influenced entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, teachers, students, children, museum professionals, reaching nearly 180 million people annually from around the globe.

According to its website, the museum received the National Science Foundation’s Public Service to Science Award in 2011, the first time a science museum has been honored.

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