Exploratorium, San Francisco

On our entire trip around the world, every time we visited a science museum, we were reminded of the Exploratorium, the granddaddy of them all. Every museum has exhibits which were developed at the Exploratorium, whether credited or not.

The Exploratorium was started in 1969, by Frank Oppenheimer (brother of Robert) who started with a “library of experiments” he used with his physics students at the University of Colorado, to help them understand physics (and more general science) at his own pace. Many of them are similar to the exhibits used in popularisation of science in the 18th and 19th centuries that we saw at the Galileo Museum of the History of Science.

The Exploratorium now has a staff of more than 400, plus part time “Explainers” (many of them local high school students who learn a huge amount of science themselves while on staff). Their exhibit space includes the machine shop where new exhibits are developed, which is visible to visitors. Reading the behind the scenes information, they clearly play a leadership role in the loose network of science museums around the world.

So on to the review of the experience.

1. The Museum must engage and excite – The Exploratorium had pretty much every science exhibit I have ever seen and then some. There were lots of exhibits that were fantastic illustrations of a scientific point that I had never seen before. My favourite was a room that only had yellow light. They provided a torch that had full white light so that you could see the real colours, but a bright blue looked light grey in the yellow light. There were also lots of exhibits that were just fun to play with – Declan had a great time marching around a big tube that created a visible whirlwind if there were enough children providing the whirl. 9/10.

2. The exhibits must work and not baffle – Every exhibit worked, as far as we could see. But (and this was quite a big issue for us), many of them seemed to deliberately lack any real explanation. The idea was that you had to figure out the physical principle being illustrated for yourself (and the designers got to watch and learn about human nature at the same time). I imagine that approach worked in the early days with only ten percent as many exhibits. But the hall is so massive that children will just run off to the next fun thing without learning anything. Parents are left frantically trying to figure it out and explain before that happens (which is much easier if you and the child have already seen that particular exhibit at five other science museums) 8/10.

3. A play area should not substitute for teaching science in the museum. The lack of explanations on many exhibits (see point 2 above) meant that this felt more focused on play than many other science museums we had been to. There was no designated play area (mostly a plus, for me) but too many exhibits descended into play through lack of explanation. A classic example was the pacman exhibit. It was very cool – it was pacman with completely separate up down left and right controls, so that it could only be played by four people simultaneously. It was meant to teach cooperation and communication. But watching our two play it (one of whom is better at communicating than the other) it didn’t teach anything – it was just more fun for the above average communicator. 8/10.

4. Televisions and computers are no longer, in themselves, cool, or more generally, everything should be up to date. I was impressed by how well the exhibits had held up, given how old the Exploratorium is. There were a few that used very old screen technology, but it still worked, and illustrated the point very well. 9/10.

5. Museums should tell a story.This is the weakest part of the exploratorium. The sections are themed (sound, mechanics, light, optics etc) but the mass of information and exhibits stop the story emerging. The space makes this hard – it is a huge warehouse style space, so incredibly noisy, compared with other places we’ve been to which are more separated into rooms, so any kind of concentration is hard. But we came away with memories of a few jewels of exhibits, rather than an arc of science.  7/10.

Overall 41/50

It is very hard comparing museums. The Exploratorium is one I would love to be a member of. You could go there weekly and just visit a small corner each time, and take something new away every time. But for us, it was just too big and too confusing. The focus on leaving visitors to figure things out for themselves only works well when it isn’t too crowded with preschoolers desperate to bang and crash things for themselves (which I suspect is rare, given how popular the place is). The Exploratorium has gifted the rest of the world with concepts that we have enjoyed in countries as varied as China and Poland. But the visit itself was not as good as we had been building it up for.

And for the practical things:

Cafe factor: The cafe is probably slightly above average for a US tourist destination (which is still not great from our perspective). OK coffee and some not too unhealthy food gave us a reasonable lunch.
Expense: Total cost of $50 for a family of four. But full disclosure, we managed to get in free because of Evan’s writing for geekdad (which left us all quite thrilled).

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