San Francisco's Exploratorium is Moving, Growing -- and Evolving

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Courtesy Marc L'Italien/EHDD

After forty-three years in the Palace of Fine Arts near the Golden Gate Bridge, the Exploratorium is moving to a restored pier on the Embarcadero. The move is a big experiment for the museum: how to grow into its new location, without losing the feel of its old self.

Leaving the Roman Ruin

The Palace of Fine Arts is a rosy-colored faux-Roman ruin, sitting next to a pond popular with swans and brides. Stepping inside was always a funny juxtaposition: going from the Fantasia on the outside, in, to the din of the Exploratorium. In its old space, the museum was a buzzing, windowless warehouse, centered around a shop where museum staff figured out how to hack together its hundreds of quirky contraptions that help teach kids scientific concepts and where everything had a familiar, “do it yourself” feel.

"When I first took this job, a designer friend of mine said, 'So you gonna clean this place up?' And I said, 'No, please.'" laughs Tom Rockwell, the director of exhibits at the Exploratorium. He took the job knowing it would eventually involve a move. But he says, it’s not about “cleaning the place up.”

"To me, one of the key jobs has been not to lose the funkiness," he says. "Not to lose the sense of it being like an inventor’s garage, where people are constantly making things and discovering things. And you know, inventors don’t worry so much about whether the cabinetry all looks perfect."


One day a few weeks before the facility closed in January for the big move, project manager Owen Lawrence was dressed in white coveralls, vacuuming a piece of the listening cloud exhibit before it got packed up.

"I don’t think anybody realized how much dirt was here," he says. "Normally I’m doing budgets and timelines. So it’s kind of an all-hands on deck thing right now. So I've got my Tyvek suit on. I've got my gas mask."

The Upgrade on the Embarcadero

The new Exploratorium is a stunning, $300 million facility on the San Francisco waterfront at Pier 15, triple the size of the old museum.

The new site includes a restored pier and new construction (Courtesy of Zum)
The new site includes a restored pier and new construction (Courtesy of Zum)

One reason for the move was to be more accessible: the new location is easier to get to on public transportation, and close to downtown. Planners are hoping that will improve attendance. The Exploratorium has about 600,000 visitors a year now, half the annual total of the Ontario Science Centre in Canada, which is a similar museum. And there’s the California Academy of Sciences' new building in Golden Gate Park, which has overshadowed just about everything else in San Francisco.

Then, there are other things that could just work better.

"When you needed air conditioning in the old building, we would buy an air conditioning unit for, like a house, and bolt it to the wall with plywood," says Chuck Mignacco, building operations manager. We're standing in front of the new building. There are still active piers nearby, but this one is now a state-of-the-art green building. And he is excited about it.

"Think of the building like a living thing," Mignacco explains. "This one, unlike the old one, has a brain and a computer in it."

The goal is for this new building, which will have 600 exhibits, to be net-zero energy -- to produce as much electricity as it consumes. There are 85,000 square feet of solar panels on the roof, and on the inside there's the Bay Water Room, part of the mechanical system for the building. The colorful pipes in the room suck water in from San Francisco Bay, which -- since we’re out on a pier -- is directly below our feet. The cold water helps regulate the temperature of the building – it cools off the warm spots and then distributes the heat to cooler places.

So the building is kind of a science experiment in itself. Marc L’Italien, from the San Francisco-based architecture firm EHDD is the lead designer on the Exploratorium, and he says, that's part of how net-zero energy buildings work.

An artist's rendering of the Central Gallery in the new building, where exhibits will focus on sight and sound. (Mark Pechenick/Exploratorium)
An artist's rendering of the Central Gallery in the new building, where exhibits will focus on sight and sound. (Mark Pechenick/Exploratorium)

"You have to tinker with them and Exploratorium staff are born tinkerers," he says.

The museum in this new building still has a warehouse-y feel: concrete floors, big open spaces.

"We see the architecture as the straight man," says L'Italien. "They steal the show with the punchline, with the exhibits."

L’Italien and his team spruced up the exterior and restored signs from previous businesses on the old pier.

"I think Pier 15 in its day wouldn’t have been a building that people would have taken much notice of," he says. "And now the fact that you have a world-renowned institution like the Exploratorium here, it’s going to get a lot of people visiting, and we’re celebrating the history of this site, of San Francisco with this building."

New Site, New Science

New exhibits take advantage of the site, too. The Bay Observatory is part of a newly-constructed wing of the museum, a transparent-feeling room with floor-to-ceiling windows giving big views of the Bay on one side, and downtown San Francisco on the other. Sebastian Martin, an exhibit developer working on the Bay Observatory, fiddles with an iPhone mounted on a spotting scope.

"We call this the landscape scope," he says. "Right now I’m looking at a spot over at Treasure Island. I’m actually looking at the water."

He's been using the scope to watch water currents change. Other exhibits here examine the sun, weather, wind direction and tides, and there's a computer that identifies ships as they go by.

"I think when we first visited the piers we all realized what an opportunity this was for us to explore the world around us, rather than the kind of world in a kind of test tube," says Susan Schwartzenberg, who works with Martin on the Bay Observatory.

Physicist and teacher Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium in 1969. (Courtesy of the Exploratorium)
Physicist and teacher Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium in 1969. (Courtesy of the Exploratorium)

Sticking With a Tradition of Staying in Flux

Some things won’t change. The shop is still in the middle, and familiar exhibits like the tornado are here, too. The old tactile dome didn’t make the move, but they're building a new one.

The Exploratorium has been a pioneer in the world of interactive, hands-on science education for over four decades. And when it's ready to unveil its new home, Rockwell says, it will still be a work in progress.

"We keep on reminding ourselves we don’t want to open too finished," he says. "We have a lot of projects that we will open with prototypes, with things that we’re going to start learning from and then keep on changing and evolving as we go."


The Exploratorium is scheduled to reopen to the public -- prototypes and all -- on April 17.