At 40, Exploratorium still leads in hands-on science

Legend has it that one day in the fall of 1969, Frank Oppenheimer was standing in the cavernous Palace of Fine Arts, tinkering with one of the exhibits he had invented for the hands-on science museum he had long dreamed of opening.

He, his wife and son had been working for most of the fall on the exhibits, but that day, he had apparently forgotten to lock the door after coming in and someone wandered into the building.

“Are you open yet?” the wayward visitor asked Oppenheimer.

“I guess we are now,” he said.

That was the spontaneous — if lacking in pomp — grand opening of what not long after would be declared one the world’s greatest science museums.

Today at the Exploratorium children and adults alike can now freeze their shadows, hear through their teeth, walk through a man-made tornado, play with optical illusions and create a miniature earthquake that can be recorded on a sensitive machine.

The museum’s staff proudly brags that it was the first to ditch the traditional museum modus operandi of informing visitors about what expert scientists have discovered and show them pictures or stand-alone exhibits. Instead, the museum embraced a philosophy that visitors should learn about science by participating in it with their own hands. That once-revolutionary concept has since been emulated by science museums around the world and earned the museum a global reputation.

This month the Exploratorium will celebrate its 40th anniversary — with much more pageantry than its humble beginnings may have portended. A bubble troubadour will give a demonstration in the craft of creating bubble spectacles — a throwback tribute to the massively popular Bubble Festivals the Exploratorium hosted in the 1980s and 1990s; Dr. MegaVolt will “joust” with 14-foot electrical arcs thrown by a large Tesla coil; and a motorcycle hanging from a giant block of ice will use the fabulous property of friction to slice the ice in half and fall to the ground — leaving what, upon inspection, will prove to be a single block of ice.

The entire episode would surely be to the liking of Oppenheimer, who deeply believed that the wonder of science and technology should be accessible to everyone. A true renaissance man, he studied art and music as a child and later in life became a famous scientist, education advocate and peace activist. He was the younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of New Mexico’s Los Alamos Laboratory in the 1940s and widely considered the father of the atomic bomb.

Frank Oppenheimer had his own research career in physics in the same era, and indeed worked with his brother on the Manhattan Project and at Los Alamos. His involvement in that project, which developed the bombs that would later kill hundreds of thousands of people in Japan, may have inspired him to create the Exploratorium, museum spokeswoman Linda Dackman said.

“I think in some ways the Exploratorium represents the light side of science for him, after he had been involved with the dark side of science earlier in his life,” she said.

Though he was producing brilliant research, Frank Oppenheimer, like his brother, was forced to resign from his academic positions in the 1950s after he was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of associating with the Communist Party.

According to the Exploratorium’s biography of Oppenheimer, “almost overnight, he changed from being a brilliant researcher and author of significant papers to a cattle rancher.”

A decade later, Oppenheimer was finally able to return to his academic research career. During the next several years, he became more and more interested in creating a science and technology museum for the people. In the late 1960s, he was invited to participate in the initial planning for a new branch of the Smithsonian, but turned it down to pursue his “San Francisco project.”

A $50,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation allowed Oppenheimer to lease the Palace of Fine Arts; within a few years, it became known worldwide for its innovative and fun exhibits.

The museum has long since outgrown the once-oversized facility. Ever since the museum first ran out of space for new exhibits in 1982, curators have been forced to pick about 400 out of an inventory that now numbers about 1,000 of its exhibits to show, museum Executive Director Dennis Bartels said.

The space constraints, along with the lack of easy public transportation to the site, finally compelled the museum’s leaders to consider other locations. The museum is now securing the rights to construct a new facility on Port Property at Piers 15 and 17, about half a mile north of Market Street along The Embarcadero, and within walking distance of BART and Caltrain.

The plan has been winding its way through the public approval process, but if all goes well, the new Exploratorium could open as soon as 2012. It would have 2½ times its current indoor space, as well as two acres of outside space, Bartels said.

On a recent overcast weekday, Redwood City resident Lisa Perry brought her two children and two of their friends to the museum; she said she’s thrilled at the prospect of taking Caltrain to the future Exploratorium.

“The first time I came here was 35 years ago, when I was a kid. I just remember being sucked in and wanting to touch everything,” she said, watching her son and his friend toss a beach ball into the air over a powerful fan, trying to see how long they could make it fly.

Dackman said the change of location remains consistent with Oppenheimer’s original vision for the Exploratorium.

“Think about how this museum opened compared to how most museums open. They have everything perfectly perfected. Everything in place. Everything nailed down. It’s never going to change for a long, long time. The Exploratorium’s the exact opposite,” she said. “Always a work in progress and always an experiment.”


Executive director boosts institute’s educational goals

In high school, Dennis Bartels took a class about mass media, in which he was asked to dissect a commercial advertisement and to question everything about its message.

His teacher pushed Bartels and his classmates to ask such questions as: What does it really mean if nine out of 10 dentists recommend Dentyne?

Though the class had nothing to do with science, Bartels counts it as his first intersection with the Exploratorium’s style of thinking.

“The whole idea with the Exploratorium is not to create more scientists — though we need those too — but it’s to give the rest of us a built-in antidote, so we can think for ourselves, so we ask that next question, so we won’t be easily fooled or manipulated,” he said. “If we all asked that next question, my gosh, how much smarter and better would this world be?”

Though Bartels is now executive director of one of the world’s most famous hands-on science museums, he does not profess to be a scientist himself. Though he says he did fine in math and science in school, it never occurred to him to pursue it as a career.

Instead, he was drawn to studying how people learn, and ultimately received a doctorate degree in education from Stanford.

While at Stanford, Bartels and his wife visited the Exploratorium one afternoon in 1988 on the recommendation of a friend, driving up to The City for the afternoon and expecting to spend perhaps an hour in the museum. Instead, they spent five hours there and blew off their plans for the remainder of the day.

Though Bartels was deeply impressed and engaged by the museum, he almost thought there had been a mistake when a recruiter called him eight years later while he was working for the superintendent of education in South Carolina and asked if he’d be interested in applying for an open position as director of learning and teaching at the Exploratorium.

“I said, ‘God, that’s great, but I’m not your expert in science.’ But the recruiter said, ‘No — we know that, but we actually want you. We want to have an impact on national education policy and we need you to help us do it,’” Bartels said.

More than a decade later, the Exploratorium is busy achieving that goal, he said.

“Most people don’t realize that only a third of our budget goes to the experience on the floor. The other two-thirds of the budget go to education and school programs,” he said.

Bartels spent six years in that position before leaving to go to a private company that specializes in curriculum development. A few years later, he was recruited back to the Exploratorium to serve as the executive director. And Bartels says he’s here to stay.

“In my field, it’s like the best seat in the world to have,” he said. “I’m here as long as they’ll keep me.”


Exploratorium timeline

1969: Exploratorium opens with a handful of exhibits on a $50,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation

1970: First major exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity, opens. The High School Explainer program starts — with one student.

1972: School-in-the-Exploratorium starts with the goal to improve elementary school science education.

1974: Artist in residence program begins

1976: The museum constructs its first classrooms and creates its first publication — a “cookbook” for replicating museum experiments.

1988: Pi day is first celebrated

1993: Becomes the first independent museum to have a Web site

2002: The Center for Informal Learning and Schools is established as a partnership between the Exploratorium, Kings College in London and UC Santa Cruz. The Exploratorium receives a grant to be able to award postdoctoral fellowships for public science education.

2004: Process begins to look for a new, larger facility for the museum.

2009: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Exploratorium announce a program to bring climate and ocean science to the public through interactive exhibits.

2012: New facility may open


Calendar of events

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Exploratorium offers the following electrifying, evanescent and enlightening series of events. Admission to the museum is free to the public Nov. 4 as well as the weekend of Nov. 7-8.

Nov. 5: Exploratorium After Dark — Electrifying Science with Dr. MegaVolt®

Nov. 7: Cutting Ice into One with a Motorcycle

Nov. 7-8: Tom Noddy’s Bubble Magic

Nov. 8: Iron Science Teacher

Nov. 14: Operate!

Nov. 15: Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up — A Conversation with Author K.C. Cole

Nov. 21: Physics of Toys

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