San Francisco’s Exploratorium boosting visitor experience in new waterfront space 

click to enlarge The new Exploratorium has 650 exhibits, including about 150 that are making their debut at the waterfront location. - JOSEPH SCHELL/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Joseph Schell/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • The new Exploratorium has 650 exhibits, including about 150 that are making their debut at the waterfront location.

In the center of the new Exploratorium building on the waterfront sits a 40-foot-tall clock. At the top of each hour, a gong goes off alerting visitors of the time of day. Its numbers retract around the concrete column it circles to make an interactive exhibit.

For instance, there’s a small “tinkerer” with a wrench waiting to fix the number two once it moves back to its place, and another with a saw works on the six. These tiny tinkerers are controlled by visitors who can crank a wheel to put them to work.

The clock is just one of hundreds of new and returning exhibits — all hands-on and educational — that the Exploratorium has waiting for visitors when it opens in its new space April 17.

“Our hope was to make everything transparent,” said Karen Wilkinson, the curator of the tinkering room where the clock sits. “We wanted to be able to expose the mechanisms, but also have it be part of the exhibit.”

The building is nearly three times the size of the old location at the Palace of Fine Arts. The art, science and human-perception museum moved out of its dated, dark space in January; it had been there more than 40 years.

“It was a bit dark and dusty and isolated,” said Dennis Bartels, the Exploratorium’s executive director. “Now we’re opening on the front porch of San Francisco, a city we love so much.”

From a giant Douglas fir that spans most of the floor in the east gallery to new exhibits focusing on human interaction in the west gallery, the Exploratorium is using its new space to invite visitors to interact and learn. It even has exhibits outside the building that do not require admission fees to see.

The new space has 660,000 square feet of outdoor space on Piers 15 and 17, said Shawn Lani, curator of the outdoor exhibits.

They allow visitors to explore and understand natural elements such as the wind direction and what’s in the water they’re standing over.

“This is our way of establishing a new civic relationship with visitors,” Lani said. “We’re inviting people to come take a look around — see what’s outside and, in that same vein, what’s going on inside.”

Many of the 650 exhibits were moved from the old building, including the turntable that allows visitors to roll balls and discs. But roughly 150 new exhibits also were created.

“The old place was huge,” said Ken Finn, the Exploratorium’s science educator. “[This place is] still huge, but it’s broken up into smaller spaces.”

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