Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for Exploratorium

via Everything Science
The Exploratorium, which currently sits in the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (which was built by Bernard Maybeck, a major mentor of my own heroine Julia Morgan - he helped convince her to apply to the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she became the first female student!) has been and will probably remain one of my favorite places in the world. I recently learned that it's moving to Pier 15 in 2013, and while that's kind of heartbreaking to me in some ways because I love the vast and beautiful building in which it lives, I just don't feel that worried about it becoming any less awesome. (Unlike, say, the museum which must not be named this place.)

My love of the Exploratorium begins not with me but with my father, who got a job there in the very early years under Frank Oppenheimer, the founder and brother of Robert Oppenheimer of Manhattan Project fame. My dad was fresh out of college and wanted to be a scientist - but not, you know, a boring scientist with a white coat. He wanted to be a weird scientist. Maybe not a mad scientist (although he does do a pretty good malevolent laugh), but someone who got to work with the peculiar and the wonderful and the mystical aspects of science. I mean, this is a kid who at age ten or so was skipping school to hang out in a hidden lab somewhere on 2nd Street (I'm pretty sure it was 2nd Street, because I got a job working for some foofy internet company on 2nd Street one summer and my dad came to have lunch with me and pointed up the road at a nondescript building and said "Hey look! That's where my secret science lab was when I was a kid!") to play with his chemistry set and dream about Science. The Exploratorium, home to some of the best weird science in the country, was about as close as he ever came -- maybe as close as any of us will get to come to the playful, mutable borders between science and imagination. Some of the signs my father wrote are still there, over a quarter of a century later. (I hope those will make it in the move, but that much I'm prepared to doubt...)

So what's so great about this place, anyway? First of all, it looks really cool. It's a vast cavern of a building. It's wide open - there are almost no walls. And it's dark. Everything has a slightly spooky, shadowy air, a little like an underground cavern. The shouts and laughter of hundreds of people playing with science do this weird echo and reverb that I'm really going to miss when they move. (I hope they keep it poorly lit, too, although I'm not holding my breath on that one-- but it adds so much to the sense of discovery and weirdness and fun! It gives it this feeling of being not like any other place.) The floors are a slick concrete that always looks a little like a street after the rain, so you get that wonderful smeary color of a bustling city on a wet night, alive and slightly mysterious. And there is so much to do. Everything is awesome. Everything is an exhibit. There's art and magnets and cow's eye dissections and tornado chambers and a tree that lights up when you applaud it. There are things that mess with your eyes and things that mess with your mind. There's a computer that will try to learn how to talk to you. There's a giant music box that you can change to play different notes. There's a place you can make bubbles bigger than yourself. You can power a lightbulb with your sweat. And you just get to run around doing it. There are no glass cases. There are very few video screens, unless they're showing something like a thermal image of your hottest and coolest bodyparts. There's a shadowbox that will stick your shadows to the wall. If you want to pay for it, there's the Tactile Dome, a pitch black geodesic dome that takes you on a journey through total darkness where you have to use your sense of touch alone to guide you through a carefully constructed maze of weirdness. (At $20, it's pretty cheap considering that you get in to the rest of the museum for free when you buy a ticket in advance.)

via the Tinkering Studio (check them out!)
The place has changed a lot since I started going as a very wee one, but although exhibits have come and gone, it hasn't gotten any less fabulous. Occasionally an exhibit I love will disappear, but then a new one will take its place -- like the Musical Bench, which "measures the electrical resistance between the copper tubes on the armrests and turns that into musical notes. When people close the electrical circuit by putting their hands on both armrests (say, two people hold hands on the bench, or kissing), it releases beautiful sounds." Talk about delight: I just sat down on the bench the first time I saw it because I'd been running around and I needed a moment to rest. Imagine my delight when the bench started singing to me! Then my sister came and sat down too, and we discovered that we could make completely different sounds by high-fiving, hugging, or kicking each other in the shins. The whole building is like a giant Cabinet of Curiosity, but a live one - a box full of wonders that might come out and zap you. I can't think of anything more inspiring.

grownups getting to play like kids again - via Sticky Crows
The Exploratorium understands the experience of wonder better than almost anywhere, which is to say that they understand that feeling, which comes to us sometimes in childhood before boring explanations ruin everything, of holy cow that's so cool. They have a genius for subtle user-friendliness: even their website is amazing, a whole museum in itself. Their home page gives you a simple guide: you can either click "explore," which takes you to an elegant thumbnail gallery of exhibits that become instructions for experiments or beautifully-laid-out lessons, or "who are you?" which allows you to select who you are (anything from artist, educator, teen, geek, scientist, parent, museum professional, or, best of all, just curious) and they'll tell you how it relates to what they do and how you might consider interacting with the museum. The favorite line/unofficial motto? "Try This." That's right, jump in, get your hands dirty, play. (When they say something is interactive they don't mean there's a screen you can click on. They mean science is the best toy ever and we want you to play with it. The world needs more of this.) They've won a Webby award for best Science Website five times, they have artists-in-residence (!!), they've been ranked as one of the 12 most effective nonprofits in the US, and called the best science center in the world by scientists from five continents. And it's true: they are, in fact, the best. And they're the best because they are genuinely and truly playful, weird, and curious. They've kept a legacy of curiosity and wonder that is unmatched by any other museum I have ever been to (and I've been to a few.) They make everything themselves. They want YOU to make things. They are the least boring people on the planet. And if I want to build a museum that makes people feel foolishly, absurdly, delightedly child-like, wondrous, reverent and joyful -- you'd better believe I'm looking at them.

Have you been to the Exploratorium? It's awesome, amirite? Do you have memories of life-changingly wonderful museums to share? A time when an exhibit or installation gave you a sense of glee, delight, or real wonder? A moment when something that school had made deadly boring for you suddenly became magical and amazing again? How 'bout a horror story of a time a museum totally failed to inspire you and confirmed all your beliefs about dusty heaps of junk?


  1. Wonderful place. I miss San Francisco.

  2. Where are you now? I left to go to college, and I love the funky town I live in, but the East Coast just isn't the same. I'm moving back in August. Did you relocate somewhere equally awesome?

  3. Sounds like a great place, love that a live cabinet of curiosity! Just stopping by from the A to Z Challenge.

  4. What a lovely place I'd be delighted to visit. Beautiful photo, too!

    1. I can't take credit for the photos (I encourage anyone interested to click through to the sources -- Sticky Crow is a great travel blog and The Tinkering Studio is a workshop at the Exploratorium that will make you want to quit your job and go back to kindergarten, except with Science) but thanks for complimenting my swell good taste, I guess? Amberr, If you're ever in the Bay, don't miss this place, seriously.

  5. I didn't know they were moving! I'm gonna have to get the kids down there agin before they do!

    1. I don't want to get TOO excited, but it looks like they're gonna do some pretty cool stuff in the new building. That being said, of course it just WON'T BE THE SAME *wails*


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