The Exploratorium was founded to provide direct and active ways for people to learn about the world. Founder Frank Oppenheimer never intended this effort to be confined within the walls of a museum, writing: “As we mature, it also seems ever more important to us that we learn how to integrate what happens here with learning and enjoyment that takes place at home, in the city and the country, and in schools.” In 2001, a grant from the National Science Foundation allowed us to take our experiments in learning outdoors for the first time. In partnership with the National Park Service, we developed a series of outdoor exhibits at Fort Mason, a decommissioned military base on the San Francisco waterfront.
The process of conceptualizing, designing, and building the Fort Mason installation also gave birth to a cohesive team comprised of staff educators, scientists, designers, science writers, and engineers. Our method of creating rich, inquiry-based learning experiences matured as we developed a shared philosophy and design strategies. The team drew on the Fort Mason experience as we began planning for the biggest change in the Exploratorium’s 40-year history: moving to a new home on Piers 15 and 17. Here, on 1.5 acres of outdoor space, we developed 20 new exhibits exploring the built and natural world around the piers. The Exploratorium opened on the piers in 2013, for the first time having a significant outside component.
With the move, we also committed to playing a larger civic role in the city that surrounds us. In 2012, the Studio received another National Science Foundation grant, Ciencia Pública, to engage Latino youth in codesigning a public space project adjacent next to a Boys and Girls Club in San Francisco’s Mission district. Later, in 2013, the Studio partnered with San Francisco’s Planning Department and the Mayor’s Office of Innovation to create and install the first Living Innovation Zone on Market Street.
The majority of these outdoors areas are free and open to the public—a notion core to our mission of moving exploration and curiosity out into the world. In 2014, the Exploratorium solidified this commitment to the public sphere by establishing the Studio for Public Spaces, a group dedicated to transforming public spaces for inquiry, learning, and community.