I first heard about the Exploratorium from Tim Hunkin who has been one of the many artists in residence there. In 2013 he told me he was installing a clock in the Exploratorium’s new building down on piers 15 and 17 on the Embarcadero. Hunkin clocks are always worth seeing and with an additional recommendation from Hannah Fox at the Derby Silk Mill I added it to my list of things to go and see in San Francisco.
the cost for two of us was $60 which approaching the place cold seemed quite a lot. I was at first a little concerned by the number of kids running around all over the place and in the first area they were grabbing and banging every exhibit, swarming and pushing, really just raining fists and kicks down onto the interactive experiments and not taking any time to look at or read the instructions on each piece.
However, I soon became so engrossed in the interactive exhibits that I stopped noticing the kids and eventually (I think as a couple of schools parties left) it got quieter and less violent and noisy, with me only noticing kids who were using the exhibits properly. There were really a very very large number of well made, well explained, robust and working exhibits… and the place is huge. I’m not even sure I saw all of it as I know they have a second shed on the next pier.
I was amazed by the number of human behaviour exhibits including full-scale human adult usable explanations of the Monty Hall Problem, the Prisoner’s Dilemma and many many more thought provoking and not in the least bit dumbed down thought experiment, mathematical, statistical and all manner of other well made well explained things. Area of the museum seemed to be dedicated to sound, light, mechanisms, human behaviour, water, nature, cloud and even maps. Well in fact here is the list from their website…
Astronomy & Space Exploration
Earth, Ocean, & Atmosphere
Electricity and Magnetism
Engineering and Tinkering
Food & Cooking
Geology – Materials
Heat and Temperature
Language & Speech
Light & Seeing
Motion & Matter
Sound & Listening
Waves – Resonance
One large area containing Hunkin’s Tinkerer’s Clock was called fittingly the Tinkering Gallery. This area contained offices and workshops, some behind glass, where Makers/Artists in Residence could be seen working on projects. On area separated from the public by a balustrade had an immense collection of engineering tools such as mills and lathes to welding gear.
For me I think the total genius of the Exploratorium is choice… there are so so many well made exhibits that something will capture the imagination of even the dullest mind. It’s a pepper gun approach to science education, it makes no apologies and pulls no punches at all. One exhibit had ants eating dead rats and showed consumption at one week to four weeks. It was icky and fascinating too. The shop whilst expensive was well stocked with interesting items and science toys and well trained and friendly staff.
I feel I’ve rather undersold the Exploratorium. If you go to San Fransisco you should put it high on your list. It’s probably better going in a small group possibly with some children. If children aren’t your scene then they have an adult swim (on Thursday evenings I think). So go there please.