SAN FRANCISCO — It has been called “a mad scientist’s penny arcade.”
Some describe it as an experimental lab and a scientific funhouse.
The New York Times proclaimed it as “the most important” science museum to open in the last 70 years.
Call it what you want but the one thing you won’t be calling it is boring.
The Exploratorium of San Francisco sets the platinum standard for interactive museums.
It’s of the same genre as the San Jose Tech Museum but arguably a tad more impressive in terms of location.
Situated in renovated Piers 15 and 17 midway between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the setting is urbane to the nth degree with an unobstructed view of the San Francisco Bay. And while San Jose has a lot of urbane experiences nearby including more than a few culinary options near the Tech Museum, it is no way near the offerings of San Francisco.
You can combine a trip to the Exploratorium with a visit to other San Francisco attractions or make it an all Embarcadero visit by exploring the Ferry building left standing after the 1906 earthquake; strolling the promenade to take in the sights, fresh air, quirky palm trees, and people watch; or dine and browse the two “tourist traps” that are Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.
If you’re into seafood good luck topping Fisherman’s Wharf for a higher concentration of good dining options — price point and dining style from sidewalk strolling to elegant sit down — across the board. Pier 39 tends to be a day destination for Northern Californians as well as tourists from all over the world with its two levels of restaurants and shops, free magical shows near the giant carousel, views of the bay, and the seals lounging on adjacent docks.
There are more than 1,000 “participatory” exhibits in the Exploratorium collection with more than 600 displayed at any given time.
It traces its roots back to 1969 when it was established at The Palace of Fine Arts in Golden Gate Park by physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer. It moved into its current digs in April of 2013.
There are six galleries set in indoor and outdoor spaces that highlight specific groupings such as human perception in terms of cognition, learning, vision and hearing. Other groupings include physical “magic” such as electricity, magnesium, waves and such; human behavior, the Bay Area environment, and life sciences.
There’s a tinkering workshop area that takes the hands-on design of the museum even further than the participatory exhibits.
One of the most amusing “exhibits” for young and old alike is the fog bridge that connects the two piers. It is here you can enjoy a six minute demonstration every half hour of fog — a San Francisco staple — being created using more than 800 nozzles.
The only new building added to the two piers is a stunner. The two-story Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery features one of two restaurants at the Exploratorium — the Seaglass. The other is the Seismic Joint.
While the restaurant on the bottom level is nice the observatory on the second floor is unlike anything you’ll see at a museum of the Exploratorium’s genre. It has glass walls on all four sides allowing the gallery to incorporate features allowing people to see how clouds, tides, ship movements and such interact in real time. There is a 3-D topographic map of the Bay Area that employs data mapped over it to reflect how the amount of fog and salinity changes form point to point throughout the Bay either in days or periods as long as years. The second floor includes an exhibit with at least a dozen sensors that measure the nearby environment — air, pollution, tides, and such.
While the views and your interaction with them are stunning the subtle piece de resistance is the Oculus.
The Oculus is a built-in timepiece via a circular opening in the ceiling that allows the entire gallery to be used to track the sun’s movement and even the seasons.
A visit to the Exploratorium is enhanced by the “Explainers.” The paid positions are high school students who do just that as you explore the exhibits — they explain. College students and young educators are used as explainers for field trips.
The Exploratorium also has a store.
There is also weekly evening hours on Thursdays open only to those 18 years of age an older that creates a different experience given it is minus excited kids.
There were 850,000 visitors last year.
As for accolades, Trip Advisor ranks it the No. 1 museum among San Francisco’s 106 museums while the New York Times in 2018 listed it among “the Ten Coolest Museums in the World.”
Parking can be expensive. That said given the location and the fact you don’t need to pack a lot of things for a day trip and aren’t likely to cart a lot of things home, if you’ve never taken BART into San Francisco you might consider doing so for a trip to the Exploratorium.
You can catch the BART in Pleasanton to the downtown San Francisco cross-bay terminal and then grab a Muni bus to the museum. If you’re so inclined you can walk the distance as it is just over a mile.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org