The new Exploratorium opens — are the piers as good as the Palace?

Pub date April 18, 2013
SectionPixel Vision

As someone who was practically bottle-fed on the old Exploratorium space, I was hesitant approaching the science museum’s opening day at its new home on Pier 15 and 17. Like many other SF natives, I was attached to the old world charm and neo-classical elegance of the Palace of Fine Arts location, opened in 1969 by physics professor Frank Oppenheimer.

But consider me a convert. Where the Palace of Fine Arts’ physical layout seemed to dictate the content of the old museum, the new building, extensively rehabbed to house the famously hands-on exhibits, allows them to exist more organically. The new site now houses the largest pod of solar panels in the city, holds a magnificently vista-ed observatory, and harnesses as a heating source the Bay waters it sits above on 1800 wood and concrete pilings built around a century ago.

Paul Doherty the self-proclaimed “physicist, teacher, author, and rock climber,” has worked at the Exploratorium for 26 years, making the senior staff scientist the perfect person to lead me on a tour through the two-story space yesterday.

“We wanted it to be open, so a flood (of people) could come in, but then,” Doherty says pointing towards the Atrium, the first space visible to museum visitors. For long-time Exploratorium fans, the result is a comforting mix of the familiar and new, and as Doherty tells me for new visitors, it’s meant to be a good intro to what lies beyond. “This space here features classic Exploratorium exhibits that will show people who aren’t necessarily San Francisco natives the kinds of things that they will be experience while they’re here,” he tells me. “We wanted to showcase the best of the best.”

The atrium houses well-loved classic exhibits like “The Turn Table”, originally a physics Ph.D. thesis intended to show how a ball rolls across a spinning metal disc. When the ball crosses the “turntable”, it takes a chaotic, almost torturous path before it unexpectedly exits the table parallel to the point at which it entered.

Doherty said museum attendees, not staff, were the first to wheel coin across its surface. He picks up one of the plastic discs now part of “Turn Table” and wheels it across the moving table. “As you can see, the visitors taught us what this exhibit was really about. We watch our visitors, and we learn from them.”

Traversing the museum floor, we pick up new listeners gravitating towards Doherty’s excitement, almost as tactile at the Exploratorium’s most famous “Tactile Dome” (which will be up and running by Summer 2013). It’s enough to make you a little envious that your own workspace doesn’t inspire raptures like those of Doherty in his new digs.

For another atrium exhibit entitled “Moving Objects” (2012), by Exploratorium artist in residence Pe Lang, suspends rubber rings on vibrating rods, giving the illusion that the rings are passing through each other. “Drip Patterns” is a staff-made offering which illuminates the oozing drip of mineral oil. The effect is surprisingly artsy, and demonstrates the existence of caustics, which in differential geometry are “envelopes of rays either reflected or refracted by a manifold.” True to the spirit of the Exploratorium, no PhD is necessary to enjoy the installations — even to the uninformed onlooker, “Drip Patterns” looks cool, dispelling the idea of science-art dichotomy,

The new space’s innovations are enough to make me wish little Jessica could have seen the space. All the old favorites are present: the giant bubble-maker, live tornado capsule, artist in residence Ed Tannenbaum’s “Recollections” (1981), which freezes your image via a large scale projector in oh-so-’80s-music-video manner. These exhibits — all made in-house, as Doherty reminds me — trick you into learning, entice you into participating, and invite you to interact. I’m not eight anymore (dammit) but they made me feel like a kid again.

According to my guide, over the years, Exploratorium staff has made 2,000 exhibits. 600 are in the new space, 450 classics carried over from the Palace of Fine Arts, refurbished. 150 are brand new.

If you’re going to brave the crowds this weekend — or tonight’s continued opening ceremony celebrations — be sure to bring comfortable shoes and an open mind. If you can catch Doherty passionately explaining the mysterious behaviour of dry ice on water or the density of mineral oil suspended in light, all the better. 

The Exploratorium Piers 15 and 17, SF. (415) 528-4360,