Entering the exhibit hall of the new Exploratorium, we're greeted by a sight that gives us all pause: two water fountains, one standard issue, the other a toilet fitted with a drinking spout. "Eeew," says my friend Kristine's 12-year-old daughter, Lyndsey, echoing my inner (creeped-out) reaction. Her 9-year-old brother, though, has a different response. Philip heads straight for the toilet-fountain, flashes a mischievous smile, and takes a good, long drink. It's the perfect introduction to a place whose mission is to spark creative thinking and force you to cast off preconceptions.
When it opened in 1969, San Francisco's Exploratorium was one of the country's first interactive science museums, and it's still a leader in its field. For more than four decades, the folks who run it have been finding novel ways of showing kids and grown-ups alike that science is (a) all around us and (b) fun. And to keep the fun fresh, they're continually reassessing exhibits -- fine-tuning some, mothballing others, and creating new ones. Recently, they got a chance to remake themselves on the largest scale ever, as they moved their entire operation from the Palace of Fine Arts to shiny new digs on Pier 15 on San Francisco Bay.
As my companions and I discovered when the doors reopened in April, the new spot offers abundant natural light (noticeably absent in the old location) and nearly three times the space, as well as the opportunity to interact with one of the city's most famous natural resources, the bay. There's so much to see and do on the ground floor that on our introductory visit we almost missed the Bay Observatory, a sparkling glass cube whose second floor houses a 6,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor gallery. As we reached the top of the stairs, Philip spied the open-air terrace and was off and running, peering into telescopes and sprinting back and forth to take in the eye-popping views of the city and open water. Lyndsey, on the other hand, slowed down, fascinated by the exhibits, such as the large-scale, touchable relief map that highlights Bay Area geology, weather, and water patterns. "This is what we're learning in waterway studies," she told her mom excitedly.