Exploratorium in San Francisco
The Exploratorium is a museum in San Francisco with over 475 participatory exhibits, all of them made onsite, that mix science and art. It also aims to promote museums as informal education centers.
Founded in 1969 by physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium offers visitors a variety of ways—including exhibits, webcasts, websites and events—to explore and understand the world around them. In 2011, the Exploratorium received the National Science Board 2011 Public Service Science Award for its contributions to public understanding of science and engineering.
The Exploratorium was founded in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer, a noted experimental physicist and university professor. He served as the museum’s director until his death in 1985.
In 1949, Oppenheimer was forced to resign from his position at the University of Minnesota as a result of inquiry by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was drawn into the local high school in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where he taught for several years. When Oppenheimer returned to university physics in 1959, he focused on improving laboratory teaching, developing a "Library of Experiments" in which students could explore physical phenomena. Oppenheimer was invited to do the initial planning for a new branch of the Smithsonian, but he turned it down to work on what he called his "San Francisco project." He was convinced of the need for public museums to supplement science curricula at all levels. He toured Europe and studied museums on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965. Then in 1969, with a $50,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation, the Exploratorium opened at the Palace of Fine Arts.
The Exploratorium has been engaged with professional development of teachers and science education reform since its founding. Since Oppenheimer's death in 1985, the Exploratorium has expanded into other domains, including to engage online communities, as well as to create an international network of museums that would help these institutions address problems with general science education.
The Exploratorium is now developing alternative educational experiences out-of-school and online– extending the Exploratorium’s reach via online communities, open-source environments, and more user-produced content and experiences. The Exploratorium also seeks to serve non-professional teachers, including scientists, alternative education leaders, graduate students, journalists, politicians, and parents.
The museum floor of the Exploratorium houses a rotating number of exhibits. Some of the exhibits one can view are mouse stem cells beating like heart cells, worms glowing green with the implanted phosphorescence of a jellyfish gene, or a giant bubble where visitors can encase his or her own head. Many exhibits have also been developed specifically for the online audience on the Exploratorium's website.
There are currently more than 1,000 Exploratorium exhibits (with over 475 on view at any given time). Exhibits cover a range of subject areas, including human perception (such as vision, hearing, learning and cognition), the life sciences, and physical phenomena (such as light, motion, electricity, waves and resonance, and weather). A variety of public programs, artists-in-residence projects, and demonstrations accompany all exhibit collections.
The Exploratorium seeks to brings hands-on inquiry to the educational system by training teachers in the teaching of science. Among the education-based programs are:
- The Teacher Institute works with novice, middle and high school science teachers to increase science teacher effectiveness and keep teachers in the profession
- The Institute for Inquiry provides inquiry-based workshops and online resources for a national community of K-5 education reform leaders and Bay-Area elementary school districts.
- The Center for Informal Learning and Schools furthers the impact museums and science centers can have on teacher education and school reform. The Center also offers professional certificates for museum educators.
- The Educational Outreach Program partners with more than 30 community organizations to bring free hands-on art and science programs to schools, community centers, children's hospitals, and after-school programs.
- The Explainer Program hires and trains up to 120 high school students annually. The program combines on-the-job experience and academic instruction to encourage them to explore, teach, and learn.
- The Making Collaborative creates playful and inventive educational activities using science, art, and technology for the public and shares ideas with a larger audience of educators in museums and other kinds of informal learning environments. Their development lab is the Learning Studio at the Exploratorium. Their public learning space is the Exploratorium's Tinkering Studio.
- The Field Trip Program provides online resources for teachers, and on-site Explainers to facilitate visits and conduct demonstrations.
- Learning Tools has over 18 titles in print and annually sells 25,000 copies of Exploratorium-developed publications.
- explo.tv produces 75 educational Webcasts from the museum and locations around the world annually.
- The Iron Science Teacher is a national competition that celebrates innovation and creativity in science teaching, and originated at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Parodying the cult Japanese TV program, “Iron Chef,” this competition showcases science teachers as they devise classroom activities using a particular ingredient — an everyday item such as a plastic bag, milk carton, or nail. Contestants are currently or formally part of the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute and compete before a live audience for the title of "Iron Science Teacher." Shows are also archived on the Exploratorium's site.
Since 1974, over 250 artists working in various disciplines have held residencies at the Exploratorium. Each year, the museum invites ten to twenty artists to participate in residencies ranging from two weeks to two years.
Artists-in-residence work with staff and the visiting public to create original installations, exhibits, or performances. Artists are given a stipend, housing, travel expenses, and technical support, and they have at their disposal the Exploratorium's full array of metal and woodworking shops and materials. Several former artists-in-residence have been awarded MacArthur Fellowship "genius" grants.
The Exploratorium has an equally long history with musical, film and other performances. Some artists and performers include Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Trimpin, Walter Kitundu, The Mermen, among many others.
One example of an artist-created work is the off-site Wave Organ, a unique sonic experience located on a nearby point of land jutting into San Francisco Bay (created by Peter Richards and George Gonzales). Another example is the Tactile Dome (designed by August Coppola), a three-dimensional pitch-black labyrinth that visitors must navigate using the sense of touch. New exhibits are added on an on-going basis.
Beyond the walls
Online since 1993, the Exploratorium was one of the first museums to build a site on the World Wide Web. The site serves 12 million visitors each year, more than 20 times the number of visitors to the physical museum location in San Francisco. It has received the Webby Award for Best Science (and Education) Site five times since 1997.
The Exploratorium's website is an extension of the experiences on the museum's floor. It provides "real" experiences for online audiences. The Exploratorium broadcasts live video and/or audio directly from the museum floor (or from satellite feeds in the field, at such locations as Antarctica or the Belize rainforest) onto the Internet. Webcasts provide access to special events, scientists, and other museum resources for audiences on the Web. Using video and audio with text-based articles and features allows the public to choose among different methods of learning about a particular topic.
Video and audio also provide the ability to hear or view interviews with scientists, "meet" interesting people, or tour unique locations from factories to particle accelerators. Scientists in the field also blog and use social media to communicate directly with web audiences.
The Exploratorium Network for Exhibit-Based Teaching (ExNET) is a hybrid exhibit and teaching program that shares the fruits of forty years of research by the Exploratorium and affiliated partners with a diverse group of science-rich institutions around the United States and the world.
At the 4th Science Center World Congress in Rio in 2005, science centers from five continents ranked the Exploratorium as the number one science center in the world. The Exploratorium was recently highlighted in the book Forces For Good as one of the 12 most effective non-profits in the United States.
Facts and figures (2011-2012)
560,000 people annually visit the Exploratorium. Of these, 70% are adults and 30% are children. 61% are from the Bay Area, 30% from the rest of California, 6% from other states, and 3% outside U.S. 49% receive free or discounted admission. 97,000 students and chaperones visit the museum each year; of these, 67,000 participate in the Field Trip program.
Exhibitions and programs
More than 1,000 original interactive exhibits, displays, and artworks have been designed, prototyped, and built on site. 475 of these are currently on view. In addition, more than 2,500 exhibits have been installed at 200 science centers, museums, universities, and other organizations worldwide.
Hands-on exhibits are common place. Throughout the year, programs include original plays, film screenings, craft demonstrations, access to artist studios, and lectures.
Education and research
Since 1995, an estimated 6,000 educators from 48 states and 11 countries have participated in Exploratorium workshops. 500 U.S. teachers participate in more than 40 hours of intensive professional development each year. A national center that supports professional development for informal educators has reached more than 500 members annually through workshops, conferences, and publications.
Educational Outreach reaches 3,500 underserved children and families in the community. The Explainer Program hires and trains 120 high school students each year. The Osher Fellows Program hosts 4 to 6 resident scholars, scientists, educators, and artists.
Budget and staff
The Exploratorium's 2011–2012 budget was $44,670,579. There are 526 total employees; 244 are full-time equivalent. There is also an international team of 225 volunteers that contributes more than 15,000 hours annually in the museum.
- Exploratorium official site
- Official site for the Exploratorium's Tinkering Studio
- Google maps
- Guide to the Exploratorium Records at The Bancroft Library
- Forces For Good
- Jennifer Frazier (Exploratorium curator) iBioMagazine talk: "Science Museum Curator"