How San Francisco’s Exploratorium Went From Hidden Gem to a Vital Part of the City
by Jeremy Schoolfield
Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the author describes Jobs as “consciously positioning himself at the intersection of the arts and technology.”
Consider San Francisco’s Exploratorium, then, the Steve Jobs of science centers.
“People have this notion that with artists and scientists you couldn’t find two more different groups of professionals,” says Dr. Dennis Bartels, the Exploratorium’s executive director. “The truth is, these are some of the world’s best observers. Both help us define our meaning as human beings in the world.”
Defining our world … that’s the Exploratorium at its essence. This is a place where the wonders and mysteries of life are explained through a simple question: “What’s going on?” The phrase adorns hundreds of placards throughout the Exploratorium’s sprawling new facility on Pier 15 along the San Francisco waterfront. Open since April 2013, this new location marks the culmination of years—decades, even—of work to find a better home for this genre-defying attraction.
Like the iconic Apple “Think Different” slogan, the Exploratorium is a place that definitely thinks differently. About the world. About the relationship between art and science. About exhibit design.
And about what it means to be a vital, relevant science center in the 21st century.
What’s an Exploratorium?
What, exactly, is the Exploratorium’s driving force? “In a word: curiosity,” Bartels says.
“It’s the ability to discover and understand the world yourself,” he continues. “It’s not our job to tell people how to think, but to help them think for themselves. The world is comprehensible, and by understanding it better you can participate more.”
The Exploratorium specializes in “informal learning,” where the arts and the sciences comingle to facilitate understanding. One of the museum’s first series, for instance, involved a poet and a scientist describing the same phenomenon together in one forum. “To hear an artist describe a rainbow, then a scientist describe a rainbow, and have an audience get to hear both interpretations and juxtapose those two points of view, you walk away feeling much richer than if you’d just heard one or the other,” Bartels says.
A popular new installation that debuted at Pier 15 is a giant parabolic mirror taken from a flight simulator. When guests walk up to it, their reflections bend in amazing ways, sometimes inverting or reversing or doubling, depending on how they move; there is a sound element to it, as well, where voices bounce off the curved mirror in strange and fun directions.
“It’s about optics and geometry, but it’s also about seeing yourself in different ways,” says Thomas Rockwell, the museum’s director of exhibits and associate director of programs. “The definition of a good exhibit is something I can’t walk past without wanting to do again, and every time I go by that mirror I can do something different.”
There are more than 600 exhibits, all told, across the new facility’s six galleries. They cover a broad range of topics, from human behavior and social interaction to physics and biology. The Tinkering Studio is a place for guests to create their own inventions, inspired by the Exploratorium’s own adjacent “onstage” exhibit workshop. The new Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery and Terrace, meanwhile, takes full advantage of the waterfront location by explaining and examining natural and man-made phenomena that occur on (and beneath!) the bay. Here guests can track ships out on the water, examine tidal patterns, and learn about the creatures that live below the water’s surface.
In addition, there are more than 40 art installations in the Exploratorium, along with a new Center for Art & Inquiry that will lead the museum’s endeavors in this area going forward. One of the iconic new art pieces on Pier 15 is the “Fog Bridge” by Fujiko Nakaya, which surrounds a 150-foot bridge outside the museum in fog every 30 minutes. Originally planned as a temporary piece, the “Fog Bridge” will remain a permanent installation due to overwhelming popularity.
“Our floor is a learning laboratory,” says Silva Raker, the Exploratorium’s director of business development. “That’s how we think of it—not as a museum.”
Moving to ‘The Front Porch
of San Francisco’
Depending on when you start the clock, the Exploratorium’s move from the Palace of Fine Arts near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge—its original home since 1969—to Pier 15 along the city’s eastern waterfront took anywhere from 10 to 30 years.
The museum’s founder, physicist Frank Oppenheimer, said before his death in 1985 that the Exploratorium’s biggest challenge going forward was its location. While the beautiful, historic Palace had served as a fine home, it was clear even in the mid-1980s the facility didn’t offer long-term growth opportunities. It was too inflexible a stage for the Exploratorium’s needs, and an area accessible only by car was not in keeping with a city moving more and more toward pedestrian traffic and public transportation. Exploratorium officials looked at doubling the Palace’s size in some way, but costs would be nearly as much as moving to an entirely new facility.
So in 1998 the Exploratorium launched a $300 million capital campaign, beginning the tasks of raising money, looking for developers, and searching for a new spot to call home. Everything about the process went slower than expected, however. It took six years to find and select the massive industrial warehouse on Pier 15. From there it took another six years to acquire all the proper development approvals from six different municipal agencies and planning boards.
“It was the most complicated puzzle I’d ever worked on,” Bartels says.
Finally, in April 2010, the museum took its construction contract out for bid. The patience and hard work were coming to fruition … there was just one question remaining: What would this new Exploratorium actually be?
Exploratorium Inspiration: Everything from Libraries to Harry Potter
When they first saw the new building in its raw form, Bartels says “the board and the staff instantly fell in love with the space.” The warehouse/garage aesthetic was exactly what they were looking for. Pieces of art in a museum aren’t to be touched; the Exploratorium is all about getting your hands on things, figuring out how they work by testing and doing. To Bartels, the exposed pipes and concrete floor of the warehouse say, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing here you can break that we can’t fix.”
If there was one benefit to the lengthy relocation process, Bartels says it gave the museum’s staff and board of directors plenty of time to figure out exactly what the new facility should and could be. Everyone involved with the project spent time contemplating his or her own favorite places—what makes them special, and how could those traits be incorporated into a revitalized Exploratorium? A team of two dozen went on a whirlwind tour visiting 25 sites across seven cities in just five days. Bartels says the diverse inspiration included the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, the Seattle Public Library in Washington, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, to name just a few. Teams also visited the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure.
Asked what they learned from Potter, specifically, Bartels replies, “It’s the immersive experience. It’s putting the visitor and the staff in this place where you blur the line between what’s real and what isn’t. You get deep engagement where the visitor suspends disbelief and leaves who they normally are in the outside world and becomes something else inside.”
Rob Semper is the Exploratorium’s executive associate director and director of programs. He’s been with the museum since 1977, and he says the team took everything it learned from those site visits, all their personal inspirations, and everything they learned from the good and the bad at the Palace to create their ideal facility.
And so far, so good. With triple the amount of overall exhibit space than the Palace, Pier 15 absorbs crowds extremely well, Bartels says, and there haven’t been any extraordinary operational challenges beyond what you’d expect from working in a completely new space. Semper says the exhibits they brought over from the Palace are showing better here, with the huge windows letting in much more natural light. Guests tell Rockwell they enjoy being able to walk outside and take a rest while gazing out at the bay.
“There’s been no looking back to the old building,” Semper says. “We’re thrilled to be at this location. There’s something new happening all the time.”
The Exploratorium’s new facility on Pier 15 was designed to be a net-zero energy building. One element of that plan is this 1.3-megawatt SunPower solar power system on theroof. The system is designed to ultimately generate 100 percent of the electricity demand at thenew facility.
‘The Exploratorium Was in a Cocoon for a Long Time’
When does a museum stop being a museum and become something else entirely? The Exploratorium has been working on that puzzle since its inception, and on it’s grand opening day, April 17, 2013, it found a big piece.
The new facility is located along San Francisco’s bustling Embarcadero throughway, adjacent to the Financial District. About a mile from Fisherman’s Wharf, the museum is now poised “on the front porch of San Francisco,” Bartels says, amongst a healthy cross section of businesspeople , local residents, and tourists. With plenty of nearby parking, prime access to public transportation, and sitting abreast a heavily foot-trafficked waterfront, the Exploratorium went from a hidden gem to a shiny diamond overnight.
“The power of the location cannot be overlooked,” Bartels says. “It’s like a giant coming-out party, allowing us to introduce ourselves to so many new people.”
A lot of new people, actually. At press time, the Exploratorium’s attendance figures were 2.5 times those of the previous facility. In the first six months on Pier 15, 43 percent of visitors were first-timers, and 50 percent came by means of travel other than a car. “That just makes your heart sing,” Bartels says. Exploratorium revenues have more than tripled, as well; the museum has grown from a $27 million organization in 2008 to $48 million today. Despite those numbers, however, initial projections for guest spending and overall revenue were not met, forcing the museum to lay off 17 employees and accept 18 early staff retirements; at press time there were more than 400 employees at the museum.
The Exploratorium runs several evening programs throughout the month exclusively for adults, including cinema nights, live performances, and panel discussions. Attendance for these functions is up thanks to the convenience of the new location, particularly the “After Dark” program which has increased in visitation seven-fold.
The new Exploratorium features 330,000 square feet of exhibit space, including 2 acres outdoors surrounding the building. Rather than keep this outdoor area to themselves, the tinkerers at the museum turned it into a largely public terrace where passersby can wander through exhibits about social interaction, human behavior, and the San Francisco Bay—all without paying a dime. The Exploratorium has also worked with the city to install small satellite exhibits across town; these are dubbed “parklets” because they’re housed on converted parking spaces and are free to the public.
“The museum is breaking the walls, like it’s inside out,” Semper says. “The Exploratorium was in a cocoon for a long time, and now this relocation is allowing us to explode outward.”
The Future: A Museum ‘Indispensable’ to Its Community
All of this work in the new neighborhood is in concert with where Exploratorium officials see museums moving in a broader sense around the world. Bartels says many facilities are starting to ask this difficult question: “Am I indispensable to my local community … or am I just nice to have? What is my unique value to this community?” He points to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s efforts in race relations as an example, or the Seattle Public Library acting as a community center with a full range of civic-oriented services. The Exploratorium is one of a growing number of museums and science centers establishing programs inside schools and working with local civic groups, he says.
“People and programs may be more significant than buildings and stuff,” Bartels says. “How much can we use the entire city as a campus and become part of the civic fabric of the town?”
“The importance of a science center in its community goes beyond attracting visitors and providing leisure-time entertainment,” Rockwell adds. “The deeper collaborations within the community are very important.”
So while the new Exploratorium was three decades in the making, in one sense the real work is only now beginning. The new building is merely a launching point.
“The idea of blurring the boundary between a closed institution you pay admission for and what happens out on the street is exciting to us,” says Rockwell. “It’s about re-imagining how education happens in public spaces.”
“We still haven’t realized the scale of what we have to work with here,” Bartels concludes. “This new facility is like our stage sets, and in building a good theater, you’re not even sure what plays you’re going to be running in 10 years. In some respects, all we’ve done is get the stages built, and now we get to play with them and do a lot more new and different things.”
Contact Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Schoolfield at
Science Centers Are for Adults, Too!
The Exploratorium has always had a strong contingent of adult guests who visit without any children in tow, and that group has only grown stronger since the museum moved to the waterfront.
“I’m seeing this across the country, actually, that adults are hungry for something for them, especially 20-somethings,” says the Exploratorium’s Thomas Rockwell. “We’ve been very clear that science museums are not children’s museums. They’re great for children, but they’re not just for them. People want to make meaning of the world they live in, and science is such a big part of that. Our popularity with families may have distracted some of the older audiences from thinking we are for them. But science centers are for learners of all ages.”
The Exploratorium emphasizes this point with a new exhibit called “The Changing Face of Normal,” which addresses mental illnesses.
“We’ve had strong feedback from a small but vocal group of adults saying how appreciative they are that we’re engaging with controversial topics,” Rockwell says.
FOOD AND RETAIL—EXPLORATORIUM STYLE
The Exploratorium’s big move across the city provided an opportunity to re-imagine not only its exhibit floor, but its retail and dining facilities, as well.
“There’s a philosophical shift here,” says Silva Raker, the museum’s director of business development. “Before, the store and the café were considered necessary evils, and you could feel that when you walked in; they weren’t really of the place. They were ‘other.’ One of the big moves was to integrate them and have them spring from the same wonderful place as the exhibit floor, versus off to the side as a separate business.”
The Exploratorium Store lives up to its name; it mimics the museum’s aesthetics in design, construction materials, fixtures, and overall feel. It offers a lively, fun experience (open to the public without admission) that mimics the vibe of the museum—and it has its own exhibits.
“You’re giving up revenue-generating space, but what we’re saying is we’re about a bigger idea,” Raker says. “If you make that space experiential and compelling in ways that are similar to what’s happening on the exhibit floor, it’ll make sense to people and will actually drive a more successful business, as well.”
The Exploratorium Store is reminiscent of the retail spaces from Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Everything feels just a quarter-turn different from what you’d expect in a traditional outlet, whether it’s the product mix or the appealingly haphazard way the items are arranged. Whatever that indefinable quality is … you know you aren’t in a mall.
“It’s concept based,” Raker says. “It’s not just about the stuff—it’s about the context and the experience. And if you do that well, people will buy more things. People want to take a part of that experience home.”
The Seaglass Restaurant follows the same path. Set at the end of Pier 15 overlooking the San Francisco Bay, it, too, features some museum exhibits guests can take in while dining (and is also open to the public without an admission ticket). The café features an open kitchen where food is prepared to order, as well as a sushi bar.
“You’re having an experience in the place while you’re getting your food—that’s very much Exploratorium,” Raker says.
Finding and Keeping Good People—
No Matter How Strange They May Be
Dr. Dennis Bartels has had a lot on his mind the past few years as the Exploratorium’s executive director shepherded the relocation of the museum. But amidst the frenzy of a new building and new exhibits and programs, he doesn’t want to lose track of the people who make the museum a success: his employees.
“The one question I would pose for all of us is: How do we attract talent and how do we keep it?” he says. “The people who create magical experiences are kind of birds of a different feather. [Using] typical HR practices … often you end up with people who know how to follow the rules and play the system. When you look at our industry, it’s one of the most fabulous collections of misfits I’ve ever been associated with, and I mean that in the most endearing way.”
He doesn’t have all the answers yet, but he wants to work on recruitment and retention programs that encourage people “who see the world a little bit differently” to succeed and grow in this industry.
“We could become trapped in our own thinking and lose what makes these precious places to work,” he says. “What are the things we can do to make sure we keep fabulous people here and keep whatever is unique about our culture alive and allows people to thrive? There’s always this tension between creativity and bureaucracy. That’s a perennial question.”
See the Exploratorium for Yourself at IAAPA Leadership Conference 2014
The Exploratorium will be one of the featured venues during IAAPA Leadership Conference 2014, held March 5-7 in San Francisco, California. Participants will learn more about the facility during an in-person visit and case study. Additional venues included in the conference are San Francisco Zoo, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.
For more information or to register, visit www.IAAPA.org/leadershipconference2014.