Exploratorium preserving past, preparing for future

December 17, 2012 7:48:44 PM PST
The countdown is on with two and a half weeks until we say goodbye to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The hands-on science museum will reopen in the spring at a new home.

The staff is racing to preserve the past as it prepares for the future. It's still hard to tell these are the final days at this historic place. The Exploratorium opened at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1969, a first of its kind museum with interactive exhibits making science fun. A memory wall is up now where staff and visitors are sharing photos and thoughts about four decades of experiences.

One of the visitors who came back to take a look is Brian Mathews. "It made a big impression on my childhood. I have vivid memories of it and I really wanted to save it for the future," he said. Brian is an engineer with Autodesk. He's an expert in what's known as "reality capture" and he decided he should be doing it here. "So, I called up our friends at the Exploratorium and like any other experiment, they were game," he said.

Brian got a few other volunteers and they are working as fast as they can to make a three-dimensional record of the building and the exhibits. They are using a couple of different technologies including one that starts with photos from a still camera, "a process called photogrammetry," Brian explained. You take photos from lots of different angles, feed them into a computer, and an amazing software program puts them together into this incredible image. "That software can analyze all those two-dimensional pictures, triangulate and make a three-dimensional model just from an ordinary camera," Brian said.

They're also using two laser scanners, starting in the machine shop where all the exhibits are made. Again, a sophisticated software program analyzes the millions of data points from the lasers and combines them. The result is an image so detailed, it could be used to create an exact replica of the space and everything in it.

Exploratorium exhibit makers are thrilled to get the data now even though they are not sure how they will use it. "What exactly we do with that - that's sort of what we do. So we will have, fortunately, years to figure that out," New Media Director Bill Meyer said. They are also sorting, cleaning, packing, and puzzling over the 43 years of accumulated stuff behind the scenes of the museum. First they just have to figure out what they have. Next, they decide what makes the cut. Whatever they decide to keep will go to Pier 15. After two years of top to bottom renovations, it will be the Exploratorium's new home.

A hundred tiny zebra fish and some spiky sea urchins were the first to make the move out of a cramped backroom in the old building into the new high-tech life sciences lab. The urchins started exploring right away, moving their tiny arms to check out their surroundings. One of their main jobs is to produce material for an exhibit on reproduction and the move seems to have put them to work -- the sea urchins are already spawning.

The Exploratorium will be open during its regular hours at the old building until January 1. On January 2, the last day, admission is free. After that, they will have small exhibits all over San Francisco, popping up in surprise places until the new building opens in April.


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