“No one ever flunked a museum,” said Frank Oppenheimer, the founder of the Exploratorium. Arguably his most famous quote, it embodies the vision and transformative ideas that revolutionized the museum field and spawned nearly 1,000 science museums around the world.
The Exploratorium remains at the vanguard, these days placing the tools of inquiry directly into the hands of visitors, from soldering irons to screwdrivers to sewing machines. The science-rich investigations happen right opposite the museum’s own machine shop. It exports that ability to tinker inside a museum around the world, from places as diverse as Arkansas to Saudi Arabia.
It is now over 100 years since Oppenheimer’s birth in New York City. He was the younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atom bomb,” and himself a gifted experimental physicist and Renaissance man, who also worked on the Manhattan project.
August 14, 2012, was the 100th anniversary of Oppenheimer’s birth in New York City. As Oppenheimer’s lasting monument, the Exploratorium has long been a leader in informal education and in museums.
- Until the relocation, the Exploratorium had to turn away two out of three teachers requesting professional development in its Teacher Institute due to high demand. The Exploratorium’s new location at Pier 15 triples the capacity for teacher professional development. Teachers who attend have a retention rate of more than 90%, compared to the national average of 50%. Educators from 48 states and 11 countries have benefitted from Exploratorium workshops since 1995 alone.
- 80% of the world’s science centers use Exploratorium-developed exhibits. Since 1982, more than 2,500 exhibits have been installed in museums, universities, and organizations worldwide.
- The museum received the National Science Foundation’s Public Service to Science Award in 2011, the first time a science museum has been honored. It was the first independent museum on the Internet, with more than 40,000 pages of original content and 12 million web visits to www.exploratorium.edu.
Oppenheimer’s ideas continue to resonate in the museum and science education fields even 28 years after his death. In its new location, the Exploratorium, the legacy Oppenheimer left behind, extends the reach of its original mission, a fitting gift to mark the 100th anniversary of Frank Oppenheimer’s.
About Frank Oppenheimer
Frank’s three overlapping careers reflected his commitment to science education:
- He was a brilliant researcher in nuclear and cosmic ray physics
- He was a distinguished teacher and innovator in laboratory instruction
- He was the creator and guiding genius of the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s unconventional museum.
His life had a dramatic arc. After a distinguished career in cosmic ray research and participation in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer was forced to resign from his university position in 1949 as a result of being harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
For the next ten years, Oppenheimer was a cattle rancher in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Banishment from academic physics didn’t end his science career, however; rather, it sparked new ones. became the only science teacher in the local small-town high school of 300 students. He produced stellar students, many of whom came from minority and “ordinary origins.” His reach eventually extended to the entirety of Jefferson County and produced students like James Heckman, now an economist at the University of Chicago and a Nobel laureate.
When Oppenheimer finally returned to university physics in 1959, he focused on both research and teaching. He became a central force in improving laboratory teaching for students and developed a "Library of Experiments” where they could explore physical phenomena at their own pace, playing with freestanding experiments whenever they wished. It was quickly copied by other universities. This was a method vastly different from the book-centric way science was previously taught.
In 1965, Oppenheimer began the melding of his interests in peace and humanity, scientific research, teaching, art and history, philosophy, museums and the methods of science education that would blossom four years later into the Exploratorium. While on a Guggenheim fellowship in Europe, he became convinced that museums of science and technology were vitally needed both for the general public and as a supplement for science teaching curricula at all levels.
Oppenheimer was invited to do the initial planning for a new branch of the Smithsonian, but turned it down to work on what he called his "San Francisco project." In 1969, with no publicity or fanfare, the Exploratorium opened its doors. It spawned 1000 museums like it around the world and stands at the forefront of the idea of museums as educational centers. From teacher professional development to exhibit development to the notion of informal science learning as it takes place outside of schools, the Exploratorium disseminated its ideas through open source sharing before the term was ever coined.
Oppenheimer’s ideas continue to resonate in the museum and science education fields even all these years after his death. The Exploratorium is a remarkable and tangible culmination of one man’s life, experience and ideas.