The New Exploratorium
An Interpretive Review

3324 The Exploratorium’s new home on the San Francisco Waterfront. CLUI photo

SAN FRANCISCO'S PIONEERING science and perceptual phenomenology museum opened at its new location on the San Francisco waterfront in April 2013, the biggest change for the institution since its inception.

The museum had been located inside a cavernous pavilion at the Palace of Fine Arts, left over from the Panama-Pacific Exposition, where it originally opened to the public in 1969, the vision of Robert Oppenheimer’s blacklisted younger brother Frank. The original location served the needs well, a big open space where visitors could wander amongst the hundreds of creative and interactive physical contraptions that revealed the dynamics of the physical world in startlingly clear, engaging, and fundamental ways. The giant windowless shed enveloped an inward looking environment, like a laboratory, or a science fair in a conference hall.

The new building, a former warehouse on a pier on the Embarcadero, could also have easily been left as a cavernous windowless shed, but it seemed that, as a projection from the shore, surrounded by the Bay, whose waters ran even underneath, that it might be time for the Exploratorium to look up, and out, and embrace the actual world around it.

The new location at Pier 15, which has been undergoing a complete reconstruction for a number of years, still maintains a bit of the cavernous hall effect, though with three times as much space inside and out. More than 600 exhibits can be on display. It is divided into six thematic areas, such as Human Phenomena, Tinkering, Seeing and Listening, and Living Systems. The last two areas, the Bay Observatory, and the Outdoor Gallery, are where the new Exploratorium looks outward in a direct way.

The Outdoor Gallery is the space around the building, including its street front, which has some fun kinetic and climbable sculptures, enjoyed especially by the throngs of school kids that swarm the museum on a daily basis. Around the edge of the building, extending along its open side, are displays that talk about different sediments in the bay, with four circular rotatable windows that stir up samples of sediment into cross-sectional clouds.

The Bay Observatory is a second floor gallery, with glass walls facing the city and the bay. It is an indoor and outdoor exhibition space focusing on landscape observation, and the history, geography and ecology of the bay. The Bay Observatory is set up with moveable displays, viewing devices, books, maps, and a nine-monitor high-resolution master screen. There are also numerous cameras, antennas, and other devices gathering data from the roof of the Observatory, and a display of real-time vessel tracking for all the commercial shipping in the bay.

Curated by long-time Exploratorium artist and designer Susan Schwartzenberg, the Bay Observatory is a new and exciting kind of space–an open-minded, objective,  research-oriented perspectival focal point, backed by the creative pedigree and humanism of the Exploratorium, but looking outwards over the actual land and waterscape outside, towards the uncertain future we will all have a hand in making. ♦

3325 The Bay Observatory looks outward from the new Exploratorium. CLUI photo