The Exploratorium opened to the public in the fall of 1969. Richard M. Nixon was president, and the Vietnam War and racial tensions continued to divide the nation. Neil Armstrong had just taken humankind’s first walk on the moon, Andy Warhol was creating pop-art images of soup cans, and the hot tub had just been introduced in California. More than 70 million children from the post-war baby boom were becoming teenagers and young adults, and San Francisco had become a nexus for social experimentation. It was the perfect place—and the perfect time—to try out a new way of learning.
Frank Oppenheimer, then 57 years old, had already had three life-shaping careers before coming to San Francisco. A brilliant physicist in his own right, he’d been a university professor and worked beside his brother, J. Robert Oppenheimer (known to some as the “father” of the atomic bomb), on the Manhattan Project of the 1940s. Barred from pursuing scientific research during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, Frank retreated to small-town Colorado and became a cattle rancher. Before long, his passion for knowledge and learning led him back to teaching, and he began to share his view of the world with students at the local high school.
Considering the richness of his own life experiences, Frank was no typical science teacher. He put down the textbook and filled his classroom with the hands-on tools and materials that had become his trademark and that would ultimately lead him to create the Exploratorium. In 1969, Frank’s dream of transforming science education brought him to San Francisco and to the cavernous—and very empty—Palace of Fine Arts, which was once part of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco’s Marina District.
Frank poured heart and soul into his “San Francisco Project,” working alongside the artists, educators, and developers whose job it was to build and maintain Exploratorium exhibits and help visitors use them. He served as the museum’s director until just before his death in 1985. The Exploratorium grew enormously during the 1980s, continuing the work Frank set in motion. In 1987, Dr. Robert L. White became the Exploratorium’s Director. At the time, Dr. White was Chairman of Stanford University’s Electrical Engineering department. He served as Director until 1990. In 1991, renowned French physicist and educator Dr. Goéry Delacôte joined the Exploratorium and served as Executive Director until 2005. Dr. Delacôte worked toward extending the reach of the museum through networking—increasing outreach, expanding professional-development programs for educators, creating an expanded Web presence, and supporting the formation of museum partnerships in the United States and abroad.
Until 2015, the Exploratorium was led by Dr. Dennis Bartels, a nationally known science-education and policy expert dedicated to strengthening the Exploratorium’s culture of lifelong learning. Under his guidance, the museum began a new phase of growth and exploration, including a move, in April 2013, to a new location on Pier 15 along San Francisco's Embarcadero.
Today, the Exploratorium is led by Chris Flink, who brings more than twenty years' experience spanning creative leadership, engineering, design of hands-on educational experiences, and business. Chris was a partner at IDEO for nineteen years and a founding faculty member of Stanford University's d.school, where he remains a consulting associate professor.
With a goal of influencing educational policy throughout the country, programs have been designed to make connections between the traditionally separate worlds of formal and informal education: connecting the way science is taught in schools with the way it’s approached in science centers; making rarely-seen scientific research accessible to the public; and providing a venue for scientists and artists to interact directly with live audiences.
Over the past few years, Exploratorium scientists, builders, and educators have pioneered innovative ways to make these connections, working with everyone from researchers at the South Pole and NASA scientists studying the atmosphere of the sun, to playground designers creating immersive experiences for children, to Tibetan monks learning Western science and technology—particularly the Exploratorium’s approach to inquiry-based science and hands-on investigation. While the Exploratorium’s philosophy remains the same, its scope of work has grown enormously over the years.