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San Francisco: Exploratorium set to reopen at triple the size

A parabolic mirror is but one of the many exhibits at San Francisco's Exploratorium, set to reopen Wednesday.
(Exploratorium)

The wait is almost over. The Exploratorium, which spent its first 44 years in a dim exhibit hall at San Francisco‘s Palace of Fine Arts, will reopen Wednesday (April 17) in a new, light-filled home on the Embarcadero.

The self-described 21st century learning lab has tripled in size, and the construction project that made it so is billed as San Francisco’s biggest waterfront building in more than a decade.

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The much-loved institution was founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer, who believed science intersected with art and should be fun.

“If in the course of some wandering, I come onto something delightful or exhilarating or beautiful or insightful, I want to tell someone else what I have found,” he said. “More than that, I want to bring them along with me to share what I have discovered.”

The museum opened in 1969; he was actively involved in it until his death in 1985.

Here are some of the ways the Pier 15 Exploratorium is different from the Palace Exploratorium:

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The size: The Exploratorium’s new nine-acre campus is big enough to accommodate 1 million paid visitors per year, plus 3 million more guests expected to drop by the free open-air exhibits. The scale and size of this Marc L’Italien-designed structure is likely the most marked difference Exploratorium regulars will notice.

The location: Pier 15 is, of course, waterfront. Which means that much of the education that happens here will be site-specific. You’ll be able to observe natural phenomena as you learn about them. The new digs, just north of the Ferry Building, just south of Fisherman’s Wharf, include an intelligently curated gift shop and the cheery SeaGlass cafe, whose 200 bright yellow seats afford stellar after-dark views of the bay lights.

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Outdoor space: The former Exploratorium was all indoors, which was strange given that so many of its exhibits are about how this planet functions. Now 1 1/2 outdoor acres (admission-free) provide better context. Tom Rockwell, the director of exhibits, hopes the new alfresco displays — which teach about water, wind, fog and sun — will become gathering places. The Exploratorium’s exterior will also include a public plaza, a promenade connected by two bridges, a kayak-able water channel, food carts and front-row bay views. So bring a sweater.

New exhibits: Scientists and artists created 150 new exhibits in anticipation of the big move, for a grand total of more than 600. The classics remain, touching on topics from physics to perception, including the beloved Tactile Dome. It doesn’t reopen until summer, but when it debuts, visitors will again go feeling through its dark, textured passages.

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Many of the museum’s original sections expanded, including the psychology area: One extensive display shows what patients took with them to mental hospitals; another explores what it means to be restrained. There’s also much bay-themed biology, with the chance to see plankton through research-grade microscopes. Nearby, Tidal Memory features two-dozen water columns that change each hour with the tide.

The museum’s heart whirs like a tinkerer’s big workshop. Of its new attractions, the most charming is the mechanical clock from England, which operates like something made for Disneyland. Another surefire draw is the entrancing parabolic mirror, which intensely magnifies your reflection, turns it upside down and makes it look three-dimensional.

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A new glass-and-steel observatory, created by geophysicists in partnership with NOAA, encourages people to learn by looking at the waterscape; a real-time ship tracker keeps things lively.

Greenness: The new Exploratorium’s goal is to become the world’s biggest net-zero-energy museum. Definition: It aims to generate as much power as it uses. It’s not there yet, so an exhibit tracks the building’s progress, displaying real-time energy-use data. The roof is tiled with about 6,000 SunPower panels, which over 30 years will prevent 33,150 tons of carbon dioxide from spewing into the atmosphere — the eco-equivalent of taking 5,910 cars off the road.

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Another section of the roof is devoted to collecting 338,000 gallons of rainwater, for toilet flushing and other non-potable uses. The interior is flooded with sunlight (except the Bechtel Central Gallery, whose light-based exhibits require darkness), to reduce electricity needs.

There isn’t much car parking space, but bicycle spaces are ample, and Pier 15 is easy to get to by public transit.

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Art: The new Exploratorium features more than 40 new artworks. The most notable is Fujiko Nakaya’s “Fog Bridge,” an outdoor installation that envelops a pedestrian bridge in a shape-shifting shroud of mist. Other pieces include a fold-out guide to the atmosphere and a tipped-sideways Douglas fir.

Although much is new, die-hard fans of the original Exploratorium needn’t fret. Much remains the same: The quirky core culture. The brilliant, inspired staff. The insistent devotion to awakening curiosity. And that ever-present wink toward what Oppenheimer knew: that the act of learning is its own form of hedonism.

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Exploratorium, Pier 15 on the Embarcadero, San Francisco; (415) 528-4893. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays and until 10 p.m. Wednesdays. Thursday evenings ($15, 6 -10 p.m.) are for ages 18 and older and feature music and a cash bar. General admission is $25 for adults; locals, seniors, students, teachers and people with disabilities pay $19; children ages 5 and younger are admitted free.

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