Exploratorium: the shopping mall of science museums

Sound section.

Ever since we started going to science museums and talking to people about them, once place has kept coming up in conversation: The Exploratorium in San Francisco. So our visit to the Exploratorium today came with a high degree of expectation. Added to this, we were given complimentary tickets thanks to my Geekdad blogging, which made the whole visit even more exciting in its way.

The Exploratorium is like the shopping mall of science museums. The place is a huge hangar-like space that is absolutely filled with hands-on science activities. The sheer scale of the undertaking puts the Exploratoium in a class of its own; although to be fair it’s hard to compare the Exploratorium to other science museums that contain iconic items rather than being devoted solely to hands-on activities. In that sense the Exploratorium is similar to NEMO in Amsterdam, Questacon in Canberra or the new Copernicus Centre in Warsaw.

Working with belts and gears.

There were many of the usual hands-on science suspects in evidence or course, but there were also some things we had not seen before. We saw live chicken embryos developing in-vitro; we saw a cow’s eyeball being dissected; we saw a nice demonstration of the Curie effect; and many, many more things. There are literally hundreds of exhibits covering a wide range of subjects. We spent a full six hours completely engrossed.

There were a few things they did rather less well. The descriptions were not always clear or large enough. There were a bunch of very young kids treating the place as a playground which was occasionally frustrating. The presentations we attended were pretty poor, And, like a shopping mall, the range was huge but the depth was sometimes lacking. There was a sense in some places of: here are twenty things about electricity, you work out how they all fit together.

Overall there’s no question that the Exploratorium is a World-class museum and a great day out. Does it deserve the accolades showered on it from all sides? Well it certainly did when it was created thirty years ago, but perhaps it has now been overshadowed by newer imitators such as NEMO.  The Exploratorium is moving in two years time which will be a chance to leap forward again and I’d certainly be happy to go back for another look then. Right now though we offered the kids a chance to return next week and after some thought they said ‘no’, and that’s probably the most telling review we can come up with.

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