A look back at how SF's Exploratorium came to be

January 1, 2013 7:14:49 PM PST
If you want to get a last look at San Francisco's Exploratorium while it's still at the Palace of Fine Arts, you only have one day to do it. The hands-on science museum will reopen at a new home in April. So, for now, admission at the old building is free.

The Palace of Fine Arts was originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was made to look like an ancient ruin with a huge display hall alongside it. Half a century later, that hall would be reborn as a revolutionary new museum. The man with the idea was Frank Oppenheimer.

"The whole point of the Exploratorium is to make it possible for people to feel they understand the world around them," Oppenheimer said in the 1980 documentary The Day After Trinity. "I think a lot of people have given up with that understanding."

Frank was a brilliant physicist and educator. He died in 1985. But his legacy is intensely alive both in the museum itself and in documentaries, including The Day After Trinity by filmmaker Jon Else.

Frank was the pioneer of the hands-on museum. Instead of 'don't touch the exhibits,' touching them was essential. At first it was a hard sell.

"It was really a new idea," Executive Associate Director Rob Semper said. "He used to carry an exhibit around in the trunk of his car to show people what he meant by a science museum exhibit."

The doors opened in 1969 with no publicity or fanfare.

In those early days, Frank built a lot of the exhibits himself. He made one to show how one pendulum will set another into motion. The exhibit is still on display, and is part of a museum mystery.

"After Frank built it, he came in the next day and he noticed that someone had made little feet to put on the bottom of the pendulums," Semper said. "So they are really cute feet. We don't know to this day who did that."

Over the next four decades the Exploratorium grew up, along with generations of visiting families. Many people now on staff came here as children.

"I have many memories coming here as a kid," said volunteer services department worker Sarah Koik. "Whenever we'd come to the Exploratorium, I would demand more time, and I would demand to come back."

The Exploratorium now has more than a thousand exhibits in its collection and it's an international leader in what's known as "informal" education.

The staff estimates 80 percent of the world's science centers have exhibits developed here. They also run a hugely successful program training and mentoring science teachers. In fact, the museum has done so well it has outgrown its birthplace.

So the Exploratorium is moving to Pier 15 on the San Francisco waterfront. The massive building renovation is just about finished. Then it will take three and a half months or so to move in the old exhibits and finish a lot of the new ones. The grand opening is in April.

The new space will be very different, but Frank Oppenheimer's dream is still flourishing.

"The Exploratorium really was founded on a kind of optimism," Oppenheimer said in the 1980 documentary The Day After Trinity. "And with the momentum of the Exploratorium, I'm not going to stop, I'm going to maintain that optimism."

written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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