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The Exploratorium, based in San Francisco, created the "hands on" movement among museums - there are about a thousand museums in the world that trace themselves to the Exploratorium in terms of exhibits or programs. This innovative museum of science, art, human perception (and technology) provides for the general public, even those with the most limited scientific knowledge, the joy of discovery. It is an experience that inspires young and old, Nobel Laureate or artist, to understand science and nature.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco is a public educational institution for peoples of all ages. More than a half-million visitors will come to the Exploratorium in order to interact with the original - a place where all the hands-on exhibits on view are made before the public in the museum's various workshops. But its audience numbers over 20 million each year, as its exhibits are at science centers and other locations worldwide. At least 90 percent of the nation's science museums, and 70 percent of the museums worldwide, have borrowed ideas from Exploratorium exhibits or programs.
Founded in 1969 by the noted physicist and educator, Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium made it possible for people to believe they can understand the world around them. Oppenheimer, a distinguished experimental physicist and university professor, founded the Exploratorium primarily to share his own joy in discovery. His range of experience encompassed both the theoretical and the hands-on, practical side of science, and a knowledge of education and how students learn. Oppenheimer's three overlapping careers in science reflected his dedication to understanding: he was a brilliant researcher in nuclear and cosmic ray physics, a distinguished teacher and innovator in laboratory instruction, and the creator and guiding genius of the Exploratorium. He was founder and director until his death in 1985.
In 1949, Oppenheimer was forced to resign from his university position as a result of harassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee, this after a distinguished career including having joined the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, directed by his brother J. Robert Oppenheimer. For the next ten years he was a cattle rancher in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Banishment from academic physics did not end his career, as much as it marked the beginning of several new ones. One was being drawn into the local small town high school that had 300 students and one science teacher. When Oppenheimer returned to University physics in 1959, he also became a central moving force in 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 of science to supplement science curriculums at all levels. He toured Europe and studied their museums on a Fulbright Fellowship. Then in 1969, with a $50,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation, and with no publicity or fanfare, the Exploratorium opened its doors at the Palace of Fine Arts to display a few exhibits sprinkled through its cavernous interior. Today, the near 100,000 square feet of exhibit space overflows with over 400 Exploratorium-made exhibits at any given time, as well as special events and programs.
Oppenheimer's insistence on excellence, knack for new ways of looking at things, sense of humor and whimsy, and high respect for invention and play and his own lack of pretentiousness are captured by the Exploratorium. The Exploratorium provides a carefully controlled chaos in which visitors and students freely pick their paths among a subtle and ingeniously devised science curriculum. Oppenheimer insisted on honesty in exhibit building, an attitude that persists to this day - the exhibits present natural phenomena; they are not rigged to fool the visitor or improve on nature.
From 1991-2005, Dr. Goéry Delacôte, a noted French scientist and public servant, was Executive Director of the Exploratorium. He felt that the Exploratorium was already the most original science museum in the world, but helped move the museum to engage online and to create an international network of museums to make a major impact on the general problem of science education. Dr. Dennis Bartels, a nationally known science education and policy expert, became the Exploratorium's current Executive Director.
The current director, Dr. Dennis Bartels, came to the Exploratorium in 2006 with the vision of the Exploratorium changing how the world learns. This includes all audiences whether adults or children, professional teachers or amateurs, local, national or internationally, given that in today's world, technology enables all communities. Already known for transforming teacher practices in schools, the Exploratorium under Dr. Bartels leadership, is now developing alternative educational experiences out-of-school and online; and extending the Exploratorium's reach and impact through online communities, open-source environments, and more user-produced content and experiences; and by serving non-professional teachers, including scientists, alternative education leaders, graduate students, journalists, politicians, and parents.
The Exploratorium's museum floor
The Exploratorium's museum floor is the public face of the Exploratorium, a laboratory for the research and development of innovations in exhibits for exploring science, art, and human perception. Be it mouse stem cells beating like heart cells or worms glowing green with the implanted phosphorescence of a jellyfish gene, or having your head encased in a giant bubble -- the first response to any exhibit, is often the word WOW! You can experience many exhibits that have been developed specifically for the online audience on the Exploratorium's website.
Developed in-house through extensive research and development, well more than 700 Exploratorium exhibits, with over 400 currently on view, have been designed to spark curiosity, regardless of age or familiarity with science. 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 wide variety of public programs, artists-in-residence projects, and demonstrations accompany all exhibit collections.
Exhibit content areas include:
This exhibit collection presents illuminating insights into the complex process of interpreting our world through our eyes, our brains and our own subjectivity. Conceived and created in-house, Seeing has been part of an intensive effort to strengthen and rebuild the Exploratorium's core collections, which give visitors an active role in determining their experience and in creating the knowledge they take away with them. Seeing explores how we see, how we interpret what we see, and how culture and environment influence what we see. Seeing Website
Traits Of Life - A Living Laboratory
The riotous diversity of life masks an underlying unity. Deep down, we're all alike. We all reproduce, use energy, and change over time. And we're all made of cells, genes and DNA. The over 30 exhibits and demonstrations in Traits of Life bring these themes to life. Traits Website
Exhibits on electricity, heat and temperature, motion, weather, and complexity, the "stuff" that composes our world.
Listening is an action. The act of listening in this collection is both the means and the ends to learning because sound, by its nature, carries information. But there are many layers of meaning. What we hear is guided by physics -- vibrations, materials, space. What we hear is guided by our ears and brains -- our physiology, memory, attention, listening conflicts and synergies. And finally, what we hear is filtered by who we are -- our choices, culture and history. This exhibit collection summons them all through our ears. Listen Website
Mind asks visitors to observe and reflect upon their own psychological experiences. The collection focuses on three important areas of psychological investigation and experience -- attention, emotion, and judgment -- that can be experienced, investigated, and pondered by Exploratorium visitors. They compare those experiences with their own ideas and expectations of how minds work, as well as with the experiences of others. They examine how emotional reactions and cognitive assessments from disparate parts of the brain are woven into a cohesive understanding of an event or experience. Visitors also discover that in many judgments, decisions, and beliefs, their experience of being in control of what they think and feel is, at least in part, illusory. And they consider the implications of these experiences for broader questions of the human condition, such as consciousness, morality, and our understanding of reality. Mind Website
The Exploratorium is also a leader in science education reform. It brings hands-on inquiry to the educational system by training teachers in the teaching of science nationally, as well as other programs. The Exploratorium's goal is to help develop future generations of curious people who can think for themselves. Among the education-based programs are:
The Teacher Institute is a discipline-specific teacher induction programs that works with novice, middle and high school science teachers to increase effectiveness and raise retention rates.
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 examines the impact museums and science centers can have on teacher education and school reform. The Center 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 75 high school students annually. The program combines on-the-job experience and academic instruction to encourage them to explore, teach, and learn.
The PIE Institute creates playful and inventive educational activities using science, art, and technology, and by sharing PIE ideas with a larger audience of educators in museums and other kinds of informal learning environments.
The Field Trip Program provides online resources for teachers, and on-site Explainers to facilitate visits and conduct demonstrations.
Learning Tools has over 30 titles in print and annually sells 50,000 copies of Exploratorium-developed publications.
explo.tv produces 50 educational Webcasts from the museum and locations around the world annually.
Since 1974, over 300 artists working in many 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; to engage in experimentation and research; and to develop new ideas and directions for their work. 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. The Exploratorium's residency program is considered one of the first successful residency programs in the country and many museums have since created similar programs. Several former artists-in-residence have been awarded MacArthur Fellowship "genius" grants.
It has an equally long history with musical, film and other performances since after all, music is sound and hearing; film is light and the eye. These are all topics under the Exploratorium's purview. Some artists and performers include Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Trimpin, Walter Kitundu, 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. Another long time favorite exhibit at the Exploratorium is the Tactile Dome, a three-dimensional pitch-black labyrinth that visitors must navigate using the sense of touch. New exhibits are constantly added.
Beyond the Walls
Online since 1993, the Exploratorium was one of the first museums to build a site on the World Wide Web. Included in the site are more than 25,000 webpages and many sound and video files, exploring hundreds of different topics. We currently serve 24 million visitors a year on the site-over 50 times the number of visitors who come to the museum in San Francisco. That makes us one of the most visited museum websites in the world. Its website has received the Webby Award for Best Science (and Education) Site five times since 1997.
Solar Eclipse webcast at the Exploratorium
The Exploratorium's website is an extension of the experiences on the museum's floor. It provides "real" experiences for our online audience. The Exploratorium is well known for its use of webcasting, in which it 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 unusual locations, from factories to particle accelerators. Scientists in the field also blog and use social media to communiate directly with web audiences.
The Learning Tools program develops publications and products that extend beyond the institution's walls and includes over 50,000 copies of Exploratorium-developed publications sold in the past year, with 28 titles in print.
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. ExNet Website
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 (Josey-Bass Publishers) as one of the 12 most effective non-profits in the US.
Facts & Figures
600,000 people annually visit the Exploratorium
52% of visitors are adults and 48% are children
51% are from the Bay Area, 27% from the rest of California, 16% from other states, 6% outside U.S.
115,000 school-age students and their chaperones visit the museum each year, of these, 90,000 participate in the Field Trip program
11,500 individuals and families are Exploratorium members
44% of visitors receive free or discounted admission
44,500 visitors attended on Free Wednesdays (the first Wednesday of every month) last year
145 million visit Exploratorium exhibits at science centers and other locations worldwide
Exhibitions and Programs
700 original interactive exhibits, displays, and artworks have been designed, prototyped, and built on site, with 400 currently on view
Hands-on exhibits explore biology, physics, visual perception, listening, and mind
Public programs include hands-on workshops, lectures, performances, films, and other special events. Bilingual programs in Spanish, Cantonese, and/or Mandarin are offered 2-3 times a year.
The museum has hosted more than 275 artists in residence
Exhibits are located at 58 international and 66 U.S. science centers
Partnerships with 11 science centers nationwide offer them exhibit collections and educational training
Exploratorium exhibitions-Memory and Navigation-travel worldwide
Education and Research
An estimated 6,000 teachers from 47 states participate in Exploratorium-designed workshops
400 U.S. teachers participate in more than 60 hours of intensive professional development each year
A national model program improves the classroom success of beginning teachers
Center for Informal Learning and Schools, a partnership with UC Santa Cruz and King's College London, develops leadership in the study of informal science learning and institutions, and their relationships to schools
Educational Outreach reaches 5,000 underserved children and families in the community
The Explainer Program hires and trains a diverse group of up to 75 high school students each year
The Osher Fellows Program hosts 4 to 6 resident scholars, scientists, educators, and artists
9 staff members, including 3 PhDs, comprise one of the world's largest museum research and evaluation groups
24 million Web visits annually access www.exploratorium.edu, which has 25,000 pages of original content
50 live Webcasts originate each year from the Exploratorium and remote locations
50,000 copies of Exploratorium-developed publications were sold in the past year, with 28 titles in print
12,500 copies of explore, the membership newsletter, are distributed quarterly
The Exploratorium uses 110,000 sq ft of floor space within San Francisco's historic Palace of Fine Arts, plus offices and exhibit-building shops in adjacent Presidio Buildings. Facilities include:
Multimedia Learning Center with library
9 wired classrooms
Life science laboratory
Phyllis C. Wattis Webcast Studio
125-seat McBean Theater
Machine, wood, and electronics shops
Store and café
Ample free parking
The Exploratorium is available to rent for private events during evening hours.