The granddaddy of interactive science centers -- San Francisco's Exploratorium -- gets a major makeover. Plus, five other awesomely inspiring museums

By Leslie Garisto Pfaff
September 22, 2014
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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.

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The Observatory

The Observatory, of course, isn't the only new feature. Over the past five years, museum staffers have designed and built the 150 never-before-seen exhibits and spiffed up the 450 older ones that now fill the space. One of the team's considerations, says Rob Semper, the Exploratorium's Director of Programs, was "curriculum." Did the exhibits about a certain subject -- light, for instance -- cover all its essential aspects, such as interference, reflection, refraction? Equally important, would each exhibit engage and instruct Exploratorium visitors?

As an example, he cites one of the most popular new attractions: the Giant Mirror, which turns viewers on their heads. "Hey, I'm upside down!" Philip yelled as he approached its 8- by 12-foot curved surface. Not only were our images inverted, they also seemed like more than mere reflections. (In fact, I had the urge to reach out and high-five myself.)

The mirror, Semper notes, does everything a truly engaging exhibit should. "It has to present an intriguing phenomenon" (check) "and incorporate an element of whimsy or humor" (check) "and if it involves a group of people at one time, that's even better" -- check again. It also should use the best materials possible, he adds, so visitors think, "Wow, I really want to see that!" without the construction elements getting in the way: total check. "Many of the exhibits that involve perception -- seeing, hearing, touching -- turn out to be very popular," Semper notes, "since most of us are intrigued by how our bodies work."

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Monochromatic Room

Maybe that's why Philip and his mom couldn't get enough of the Monochromatic Room. A new Exploratorium exhibit, the room is lit by sodium vapor lamps that emit a single wavelength of light, casting everything (and everyone) in an eerie yellow-orange glow. But shine a white light on anything in the room -- say, a gum ball machine -- and its true colors jump to life.

With hundreds of exhibits highlighting a staggering variety of scientific and artistic principles, it's almost impossible to pick a single favorite. Kristine was especially taken with the Osher West Gallery, where you can explore such human phenomena as collaboration (via the Team Pac-Man exhibit, in which two or more players work together to munch dots and evade ghosts). I could have spent an afternoon at the Aeolian Landscape, sculpting tiny desert sand dunes with blasts of air.

A high point for all of us was the Tinkering Studio. Lyndsey, a born tinkerer, ran right to a table overflowing with materials for creating electric circuits, while Philip, Kristine, and I were riveted by the whirligigs. We cut paper cups into a variety of shapes, then tested them over a fan-powered "wind table" to see which would stay aloft longest.

Next time we go, we'll try the Fog Bridge. The popular outdoor exhibit, designed by artist Fujiko Nakaya, wasn't up and running when we visited, but it sounds awesome. Water is pumped at high pressure through hundreds of nozzles along the pedestrian bridge spanning Piers 15 and 17, enveloping visitors in a dense bank of fog, a familiar sight for San Franciscans, though rarely this intense. We were disappointed to miss it, until we realized we had the perfect reason to return -- something the new Exploratorium offers in spades.

If you go

Admission is $25 adults, $19 ages 6-17, and free for kids ages 5 and under; 415-528-4444;

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Five more museums

1 | City Museum

St. Louis, Missouri

Nearly everything in the City Museum has been designed to stir the imagination, from the Enchanted Caves, a labyrinth of tunnels filled with the faces of strange creatures and a glowing crystal, to MonstroCity, an inventive four-story playground. Don't miss the chance to take a "drive" in the school bus on the roof or express yourself in Art City, an open studio where kids can paint, sculpt, leave their mark on a wall-sized chalkboard, or construct a masterpiece from donated and recycled items. $12 ages 3 and up, free for kids ages 2 and under; 314-231-City;

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2 | Boston Children's Museum

Boston, Massachusetts

Now celebrating its 100th birthday, this grand old children's museum is anything but old in its approach. Consider The Common, where kids can play musical chairs on chairs that actually make music. Or Construction Zone, inspired by Boston's Big Dig, which offers the thrill of building (and tearing down!) your own city structures. Or KidStage, where after the play, performers invite the audience to join the show. $14, free for kids under age 1; 617-426-6500;

3 | American Visionary Art Museum

Baltimore, Maryland

This unique museum dedicated to visionary (or "outsider") art isn't so much hands-on as mouth-open. Imagine an outdoor whirligig more than 50 feet tall, a school bus encrusted with art, an enormous phoenix made of industrial castoffs, and a glittering egg depicting the known universe, and you have a glimmer of what this place is all about. Monthly workshops like "Memory Jars" and "Shiny, Happy Things" invite visitors to make art, and an annual Kinetic Sculpture Race and Visionary Pet Parade are Baltimore favorites. $15.95 adults, $9.95 kids, free for kids ages 6 and under; 410-244-1900;

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4 | Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The exhibits here clue you in immediately that this place is all about creative thinking and doing, from the Makeshop, where teaching artists help visitors fashion circuits, animations, wood and fabric art, and projects from recycled materials, to the multimedia Art Studio, a cool space for painting, inking silk screens, and working with clay. You can also produce an animated computer puppet show in the Attic, ride on a musical swing set in the Backyard, use props and costumes to get on stage and emote in the Theater. And seriously, lots, lots more. $13 adults, $12 kids, free for kids ages 1 and under; 412-322-5058;

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5 | Children's Museum of Houston

Houston, Texas

Visitors to the Children's Museum of Houston will find ample opportunity to exercise their imaginations. In its Inventors Workshop, for instance, kids get to bring their brainstorms to life (there's a new theme each week), with the aid of the museum's Discovery Guides. And over at Kidtropolis, a city for the younger set, kids can have a go at running for office, passing ordinances, and shopping for essentials (or will it be luxuries?), then recharge their creative batteries at art school. $9, free for kids under age 1; 713-522-1138;

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More fun at the Exploratorium

1. A water-fountain toilet challenges assumptions about cleanliness in the Sip of Conflict exhibit

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2. Teaming up to gobble dots and evade digital ghosts in a joint game of Pac-Man

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3. Visitors share the combination to a safe via the Red Phone

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4. Norman Tuck's "Lariat Chain" creates hovering, lifelike waves in the air when touched

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5. Infrared goggles offer a whole new view of the world

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6. Tubes, tracks, funnels, and bumpers can be be moved about on a pegboard to create ever-changing marble runs in the Marble Machines exhibit

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7. A black light sets fluorescent objects aglow in the Ultraviolet Room

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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