If you've ever wandered around the Exploratorium, chances are you've played with the Turntable, a popular exhibit not far from the museum's entrance. A giant rotating disk set flat into a pool-table-sized platform, the Turntable is usually thronged by visitors getting a hands-on lesson in the forces of motion. Kids in particular love to put small objects on the spinning table to see how long they take to shimmy off.
"It's a classic," says Maz Kattuah, the museum's exhibit maintenance coordinator. "People are just drawn to it."
In preparation for our move to the piers, the Turntable has just undergone a major refurbishment, part of a larger effort to make sure that 400-plus exhibits on the museum floor and in storage will be ready to shine in the museum's new space.
Some need no more than a quick cleanup or updated signage, while others are being totally redesigned to take advantage of the environment of their new home at Pier 15. There's also a push to make exhibits more energy efficient and easier to move around, as well as to ensure that they're accessible to mobility-challenged visitors.
The Turntable's refurbishment was somewhere between a simple repair and a major redesign. The exhibit's basic premise was sound, but the original motor was on its last sputter, and the wood frame was starting to fall apart. "For the new Turntable exhibit," says Kattuah, "we decided to use laminate for the sides instead of wood."
To test the new design, the museum's Visitor Research staff put the new laminate-sided Turntable next to the old wood-sided one and asked visitors which they preferred. Most visitors were torn, but museum staff had no trouble deciding, and the new laminate-sided exhibit was ultimately covered with an oak veneer.
"There's a certain quality of wood," says Kattuah, "that gives an ‘I can build this at home' feel. When you start getting plastic laminates, you kind of lose that connection between the phenomenon and the reality that this could actually be made in someone's garage."
Another change is that the new Turntable exhibit is more in line with the museum's ethic of letting visitors "peek behind the curtain." The motor that propelled its original spinning disk was housed in "an old busted-up plywood box." The motor on the new exhibit is completely visible—it's in a Lucite cube.
There's a reason the exhibit shop is open to view, and the museum aspires to the same sort of demystifying transparency in exhibits as well. "Frank [Oppenheimer, Exploratorium Founder] said there should never be magic boxes," says Kattuah. "He thought you should always be able to look inside an exhibit and see what makes it work."