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Exploratorium opens doors at Pier 15

Yesterday was opening day for the new and improved Exploratorium over in San Francisco's Embarcadero. Right around Pier 15, the new space boasts 330,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibits, 150 of them brand new. It also hopes to become the largest net-zero energy museum in the United States — if not the world.

On March 25th, I followed tour guide Paul Doherty around the museum’s new space. While it doesn’t have the high ceilings of the old space, it still has that unfinished warehouse vibe. It’s also much bigger; Pier 15 spans the length of almost 3 football fields. And it’s over the water. The Bay inspired many of the museum’s new exhibits. For example, take this one about the Bay’s tiniest inhabitants — plankton.

Jennifer Frazier, a cell biologist at the Exploratorium, tells me that, “there would be no life on earth without them.” She points to a blown up image of plankton. It’s luminous, like what you’d see out your airplane window when flying over a large city grid — twinkling in the dark of night.

In addition to those images, there’s a table-sized interactive display called Plankton Populations — imagine a giant iPad that shows a colorful map of the world, tracking shifts in plankton population over time. If you use these special lenses, you can see the microscopic organisms on different parts of the map.

In the brand new Fisher Bay Observatory, there’s another big screen — this one lets you see some of the Bay’s larger residents. On that screen you can track the location of all the ships outside the Golden Gate and inside the bay.

In addition, the staff in the observatory is monitoring air quality, water quality, and weather — allowing them to display information about the local environment, and relate that to a more global environment as well.

The museum’s new location also includes 1.5 acres of the Pier that will function as free, outdoor space complete with exhibits, a plaza, two restaurants, food carts, and of course, views of the Bay and the city.

One outdoor exhibit is artist Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Bridge, which surrounded by jets that help create a mist — as if you were walking through a typical foggy day in San Francisco, even if the sun is shining.

Sun is important to the Exploratorium — it will use solar power and Bay water to heat and cool the building as part of it’s plan to become the biggest net zero energy museum in the country.

There are a lot of big plans for this big museum. And it will only continue to expand; the Exploratorium purchased Pier 17 for just that purpose Paul Doherty says all of this won’t change what the museum has been and always will be. “Don’t worry, the heart of the old Exploratorium is still here,” he reassures me.

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.