Visit San Francisco’s Pier 15 anytime on or after April 17 and you’ll get to take in a bridge enveloped in manmade fog, a 3-D topographic map of the Bay Area with data sets projected onto its surface, mouse stem cell research, and items from patients who lived at a now-shuttered mental institution. It’s all part of the new Exploratorium, a $300 million upgrade to the mother of all experiential learning science museums.
Originally built in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium is the brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer (his brother Robert is the Oppenheimer of atomic bomb fame), who received a grant from the National Science Foundation to create a "library of experiments" that let students learn about science at their own pace. Before moving to Pier 15 this spring, the Exploratorium sat in a dark, somewhat musty space that nonetheless made a big impact on experiential learning across the globe. All of the Exploratorium’s exhibits are home-grown, and today, 80% of science centers worldwide use its exhibits, ideas, and programs.
The new Exploratorium is huge (330,000 square feet, which is three times as large as its previous incarnation) and gorgeous, with 360-degree sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay throughout the space. I didn’t get to explore nearly all of the 600-plus exhibits (one quarter are brand new) during the day I spent at Pier 15, but I did come across some clear highlights. Rest assured that other science museums are paying attention.
Some of the most exciting new exhibits are in the East Gallery, which focuses on living systems. In addition to exhibits like the algae chandelier (above), a piece featuring phytoplankton that are nourished by pumped-in air, the gallery also contains a life sciences lab that can grow everything from stem cells (mouse stem cells can be viewed by visitors under a microscope) to plants. One of the gallery’s curators describes it as "an open kitchen of exhibit development."
The gallery also makes use of the bay that surrounds the Exploratorium. The Seasons of Plankton exhibit, for example, uses USGS data and photos of the San Francisco Bay’s phytoplankton that were collected each week by staff to show visitors how plankton life changes throughout the year.
The Wired Pier exhibit, located in the observatory, also harnesses the surrounding environment, with data (atmosphere, weather, water) from sensors installed around the building shown on a video wall—and archived for future use.
It wasn’t yet installed when I visited, but artist Fujiko Nakaya‘s Fog Bridge, located outside the building, looks like another potentially big hit—especially because it’s viewable to passersby who haven’t paid for an Exploratorium ticket. A thousand high-pressure nozzles will create fog that wraps around a 150-foot long pedestrian bridge. Nakaya has done fog sculptures around the world; you can see what they look like here.
Perhaps the most controversial new exhibition is The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health. Timed to launch with the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the exhibition features items collected from former patients at the Willard Psychiatric Center, a New York mental institution that closed in 1995. Many of the items—pictures, books, letters, even ice skates—come from patients with diagnoses that would be unrecognizable today.
The idea is to get visitors to reflect on what normal really means in the context of mental health—something that the DSM has long struggled with. A placard at the exhibition explains: "There’s also a concern that the DSM overdiagnoses behaviors that many see as normal. For example, someone formerly called 'shy’ might now be diagnosed with a social phobia or an anxiety disorder." This is heavy stuff for some of the younger kids that come to the Exploratorium. It may also be the first time an all-ages science center has really tackled mental health. But considering the Exploratorium’s influence, it probably won’t be an outlier for long.
And while it doesn’t stand out among the Exploratorium’s flashier exhibits, Visualizing the Bay (above) is one of the most fascinating pieces in the building. It looks initially like a simple topographic map of the San Francisco Bay Area, but a projector above the map can overlay a number of visualizations onto the surface, including population distribution by age and ethnicity, a history of earthquakes over the past 40 years, and fog patterns.
Unsurprisingly, the Exploratorium has some ambitious environmental goals: It plans to be a net-zero energy building within the year, thanks to a series of almost 6,000 rooftop solar panels and a heating and cooling system that runs on bay seawater.
If you’re anywhere near the Bay Area, check the new Exploratorium out. Trust us: it’s worth it, if for no other reason than to see what kinds of new exhibits your local science museum will show in the coming years.