Is there a science to skateboarding? Do toilets really flush counterclockwise in Australia? At San Francisco's hands-on science museum, you'll find out things you wish you learned in school.
Combining science with art and investigating human perception, the Exploratorium nudges you to question how you perceive the world around you. The setting is thrilling: a 9-acre, glass-walled pier jutting straight into San Francisco Bay, with large outdoor portions you can explore free of charge, 24 hours a day.
What to do at the Exploratorium
Covering a whopping 330,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor space, galleries focus on color, sound, light and motion, stimulating learning by inviting participation. Never didactic, always engaging, the more than 600 exhibits have buttons to push, cranks to ratchet and dials to adjust, all created by artists and scientists at the in-house building shop (which you should peer into).
Try on a punk hairdo, courtesy of the static-electricity station. Turn your body into the gnomon of a sundial. Slide, climb and feel your way – in total darkness – through the labyrinth of the Tactile Dome (reservations and separate ticket required).The Exploratorium is split up into several different galleries, each organized around a particular scientific theme.
Galleries and exhibits at the Exploratorium
The Bernard and Barbro Osher Gallery is dedicated to Human Penomena, including thoughts, feelings, and social behavior, exploring concepts like sharing, normalcy, mental health, and cooperation. The playful exhibits here invite participants to find out how making seemingly innocuous decisions like whether to squirt a friend at the Trust Fountain can teach us about real-world challenges like solving climate change.
The Tactile Dome (which has an additional cost of $8–$15 on top of the regular Exploratorium admission) has been a favorite at the museum since 1971. Initially designed by Dr. August F. Coppola (yes, those Coppolas) and updated in 2013, this exhibit is part art project, part science experiment. Enter the dome and feel your way through a variety of textures in total darkness, finding out first hand how far your senses can take you.
The Tinkering Gallery is lots of fun for young inventors, with a model of San Francisco made from 100,000 toothpicks and chances to mess around with circuit boards, Rube Goldberg machines, and the construction of moving sculptures.
The Bechtel Gallery is focused on Seeing and Reflections. Play with the shifting, flowing colors of the Cubatron Core sculpture by artist Mark Lottor, experiment with shape and light in the Giant Mirror, paint with soap film, and step into a room where there are no colors – like your own black and white photograph come to life.
The Living Systems Gallery is like a trip on the Magic School Bus, with exhibits on human cells, plankton colonies, shifting tides, botony, and how microscopes capture the teensiest creepy crawlies.
The Outdoor Exhibits Gallery invites visitors to ponder the science of San Francisco itself, from the winds buffeting the bay to the earthquakes that have rattled its buildings and bridges. Some of the Exploratorium's most famous exhibits are out here, including an Aeolian Harp, wind arrows, and a machine made of bike parts that creates the most epic game of jump rope you've ever seen.
The Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery dials into observing landscapes both urban and rural, with exhibits on geology, the solar system, and a huge map of the Bay Area that clocks shifts in fog, water salinity, rainfall, and population demographics. What can you observe in the world around you?
Visiting the Exploratorium
The Exploratorium is reopening July 1st after the COVID-19 pandemic, and its new hours will be Wednesday–Saturday: 10:00AM - 5:00PM and Sunday noon - 5PM, with the museum closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Members have an extra opportunity to visit on Sundays from 10AM to noon. Adults over 18 can take advantage of special kids-free after hours, too, from 6PM to 10PM on Thursdays.
Tickets run $29.95 for adults from 18-64, $24.95 for seniors over 65, teachers, and teens from 13-17, $19.95 for children 12 and under, and children under three are free. Currently, the Exploratorium requires timed ticketed purchases in advance to facilitate social distancing, so it's wise to book in advance.
The Exploratorium is easy to reach on the San Francisco waterfront. You can get to Pier 15 via any BART route that stops at the Embarcadero station (with a ten minute walk following). Numerous bike racks are on site, along with parking garages in the area including Pier 19.5 Parking Lot and the Exploratorium Pier 15 Lot between Front and Green Street.
There are two eateries on site. The Seaglass Restaurant helmed by Chef Loretta Keller focuses on family-friendly fare with fun drinks for the grownups that uses the Icy Bodies exhibit to shake up the bar area. The Seismic Joint Cafe is more of a coffee shop situation, with take-away pastries and jolts of caffeine to enjoy on the Exploratorium grounds.
Accessibility at the Exploratorium
Handicapped parking is available on the street. Visitors with disabilities can get a discounted price of admission of $24.95 if you call ahead or email firstname.lastname@example.org, and visitors' ADA aids are admitted for free.
The whole museum is accessible for visitors who use mobility aids, and several wheelchairs are available on loan from the Information Desk. You may also request tactile maps for blind and visually impaired visitors. For the deaf and hard of hearing, call the Reservations office to request an ASL interpreter at least a week ahead of time. the Kanbar Forum theater space can be accessed via a wheelchair lift on site and through assistive listening systems.
The history of the Exploratorium
Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium in 1969. He'd been a physicist on the atom bomb project and was blackballed during the McCarthy era, then later reemerged as a high-school teacher, eschewing secret scientific study in favor of public education. The Exploratorium is his lasting legacy, with the mission to incorporate technology with human values.
In 2013, the Exploratorium moved from the Marina to Piers 15 and 17, where a brand-new purpose-built solar-powered space was constructed in concert with scientific agencies, including NOAA, which hardwired the entire pier with sensors delivering real-time data on weather, wind, tides and the bay. See the data flow in at your final stop, the Observatory Gallery, a glass-enclosed lookout where you can make your own observations about sea, land and sky.