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Exploratorium moves on from the Palace of Fine Arts

Science is rarely easy to understand and even harder to explain. But here at the Exploratorium, science isn’t hard – it’s fun. Why? In order to learn, you have to play.

Isidro Demry is playing with the Soap Bubble Tray exhibit. The name says it all: it’s a big tray with pools of soapy water. It’s simple, but surprisingly cool. Especially because I played with the same exhibit when I was six years old, then again when I was ten, and now, I watch as it’s used for what must be close to the last time before it leaves for a new home.

The Soap Bubble Tray is one of over 1,000 exhibits that are on rotating display at The Exploratorium, and there's clearly no age limit for enjoying them. Jack Schiffhauer lives in San Jose, but travels to the city whenever he can to spend time at the Exploratorium. He has all kinds of memories here, including seeing Frank Zappa perform, but one of his favorites is of the Tactile Dome – one of the most popular exhibits. Visitors must make their way through the pitch black dome by touch only. Imagine people groping for ladders and feeling their way gingerly through tunnels. I remember when I was in high school, there were more than a few stories of teens using it as a space to steal some kisses. Jack remembers carrying a four year old on his back through the Tactile Dome at a birthday party.

The Tactile Dome is one of the exhibits that will travel to the Exploratorium’s new location at Pier 15, though it will be completely rebuilt and the old one decommissioned. Unfortunately, several of the current site-specific exhibits will not be moving, including a camera obscura piece, which projected surrounding images of the Exploratorium onto a screen, the Rotunda Echo, where visitors can make noise outside and hear the vibrating sounds of their own echoes, and the Sound Column, where you can hear different tones by hitting a mallet against different pieces of metal.

In addition to these exhibits, members and employees alike will be leaving behind memories of all kinds of adventures. One time, employee Ron Hipshman remembers, “people r[ode] their motorcycles in the building, sometimes successfully, and sometimes less successfully...”

Hipshman has been around at the Exploratorium almost as long as it’s been open – he just began his 42nd year. He started in high school working with founder Frank Oppenheimer, and has done all kinds of things here since then.

Frank Oppenheimer, physicist, professor, and the founder of the Exploratorium, discovered the empty exhibit hall in 1969, and decided it would work perfectly as the location for his “San Francisco project.” The Palace of Fine Arts was originally erected in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. It was initially built out of plaster of Paris, but was remodeled due to public affection for the beautiful building. Frank Oppenheimer leased the exhibition hall behind it for one dollar a year from the city of San Francisco.

Pier 15’s nine acres will allow for the display of 150 more exhibits than the Exhibit Hall at the Palace of Fine Arts did. Frank Oppenheimer may have chosen the exhibit hall at The Palace of Fine Arts for the Exploratorium so we'd have room to play and experiment, but the new location gives the museum room really grow...and we'll see about the motorcycles.

Crosscurrents exploratorium
Ninna Gaensler-Debs is a reporter and editor for Crosscurrents. Since 2012, Ninna has worn a variety of hats at KALW - she was both a producer and event planner for Localore project Hear Here. Ninna also programmed and organized the Sights and Sounds live events - two in Bayview, and most recently, one in East Oakland.