Now with photos!

I’ve been to a lot of science musuems. Off the top of my head, I’ve visited major museums in London, Glasgow, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Amsterdam and Sydney – and a host of smaller places besides. As I’ve written before, I don’t go with the intention of actually learning anything; the intended audience for science museums is rather less knowledgable than I am (conversely, I learn more from history museums). Instead, I love to see the different ways in which people are trying to explain scientific concepts. It’s never an easy task, and some museums are better than others in this regard, but what I do learn are interesting ways in which you can engage, educate and entertain a diverse audience.

The Exploratorium in San Francisco isn’t just next door to the Palace of Fine Arts, where we held the Perplex City live event last week – it shares the very same structure. Despite this, I didn’t even get a chance to look at its front door until some days after it was all over. I resolved to make a proper visit though; while I didn’t know much about it, I’d heard it mentioned over and over again, and it surely had to be good, sitting in the world’s creative and technology capital.

Picture a science museum. It probably has an imposing, classical facade, with a wide lobby. Inside, there are a number of areas which you can visit, so you dither in front of a map and go to Physics. It’s a middling-sized area, with a mix of banners, wall posters, computers and various exhibits. Tourists drift around, and children zip between the hands-on exhibits, frantically pressing all available buttons when they can get to the front. Their parents follow around in tow, occasionally studying the wall posters or poking at the computers. Some of the hands-on exhibits don’t work, and there seems to be an awful lot of reading to be done.

This basically describes about 70-80% of the science museums I’ve been to. They’re perfectly fine, but nothing special. The better museums have more interactive exhibits and are slightly more freeform.

Now picture the Exploratorium.

The lobby is small, and when you walk inside, there are no discernable areas – it’s just one very large, cavernous space, with a second floor peering down over the ground. As far as you can see, there are hands-on exhibits, with kids intently twisting wheels or pushing levers. Not bad, you think to yourself, this place has a lot of interactive stuff, but I bet it turns more traditional further in. Nope – as you explore the museum, it turns out that literally every single exhibit is hands-on or interactive in some way.

I remember walking around the museum with a huge, incredulous grin on my face for the first half an hour. I’d never seen anything like it before – a technology museum in Amsterdam I visited was slightly similar, but nowhere has the same simple insistence that every concept be illustrated by a working, mechanical and invariably interactive example.

It wasn’t even that the exhibits were particularly sophisticated (although some were); it was the volume and ingenuity that surprised me. The few hands-on exhibits that you see in ‘normal’ science museums are usually high quality and expensive, which means they’re also easy to break and quite generic (presumably there are some companies that just churn out curved ‘black hole’ models to museums worldwide).

On the other hand, the Exploratorium apparently builds the majority of its own exhibits in its sizeable workshops. This means that there are all sorts of quirky things like a hand-cranked Toyota engine, ripped out from a staff member’s old car, or a marble slide that calculates square roots. The on-site workshops means that while there are always a few exhibits that don’t work, they’re easily and cheaply repaired; this is of course essential when kids (and adults!) are playing on them constantly. Probably due to its proximity to large amounts of smart people and money, the Exploratorium also has some very neat high-tech exhibits, like user-controllable light microscopes that you can examine living cells with.

The museum describes itself as a place of both science and art. While there were few exhibits that were solely for arts’ sake, it was clear that many were designed for aesthetics as well as education; indeed, there were several pieces that had been contributed by artists.

The exhibits that I lingered over the longest were those that actually taught me something new; the differential, which allows the wheels on an axle to rotate at independent speeds (thus allowing cars to turn corners) and how AC electricity (back and forth motion) can be converted into continuous motion. Both of these exhibits notably involved lots of gears and moving parts, and I’d known about both concepts before, but seeing them in person and being able to play around with the models myself allowed me to take the final step in understanding. There was also a fast-rotating parasol that demonstrated how waves worked, which I saw more than a few adults looking thoughtfully at.

Finally, I spent an hour at the Tactile Dome. The dome is pitch-black inside, and you feel your way through the various passageways and tunnels using all of your senses other than sight. It’s not particularly big, and I was expecting more in the way of smells or weird-feeling stuff, but it was still plenty fun. The first time I went around was quite challenging, having to feel my way everywhere and having no idea where the various tunnels ended. Subsequent rounds saw me get more confident and zip through. Definitely worth a visit if you’re at the Exploratorium, although you should book a place a day in advance.

So, if you’re in or near San Francisco, try and visit what is possibly the best science museum in the world. See the rest of my photos from the Exploratorium.

3 Replies to “Exploratorium”

  1. Visit it in the *morning*, and make sure that there are few school groups containing involuntary museum-goers there. It works brilliantly, but only with (a) a low ratio of visitors to exhibits, and (b) interested visitors.

  2. Only vaguely now…

    As for going when it’s busy with lots of schoolkids, I imagine it’s a nightmare – I was lucky enough to go ‘off peak’ but there’s probably a critical mass where it just takes too long to go on exhibits. Still, it seemed to absorb a far higher number of hyperactive kids than most museums I’ve been to, especially given its small size.

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