More than four decades ago, a physicist with an interesting backstory setup shop in San Francisco’s hangar-like Palace of Fine Arts. A science educator, Frank Oppenheimer began to construct odd contraptions to illustrate science in a way others could quickly grasp.
The ghostly chasm of the Palace of Fine Arts was an ideal venue for his endeavor, which he called the Exploratorium.
“It was this giant empty cavern and it had a bunch of exhibits in it,” said Tom Tompkins, who came to work for the Exploratorium in 1974.
Oppenheimer had the grand lineage of science. His brother J. Robert Oppenheimer developed the atom bomb. Frank Oppenheimer himself had worked on the Manhattan Project, before getting run out of mainstream academia after being labeled a socialist in the McCarthy era.
But within his workshop inside the vast relic of the 1915 Pan Pacific Exhibition, Oppenheimer and his scientific gadgets began to entertain, enthrall and enlighten.
When Tompkins started work at the Exploratorium, five years after its opening in 1969, 35 people worked there. Today, it employs over 350. When Tompkins looks around the building today, his nostalgia is mixed with the practical.
“If you sort of look around, it’s big, it’s cold, it’s drafty,” Tompkins said.
After outgrowing the space and usefulness of its home in the Palace of Fine Arts era, the museum is about to move to a new home on San Francisco’s waterfront. On Jan. 2, the old Exploratorium will close its doors, and re-open on April 17 in Pier 15 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. The new digs will hold over 300,000 square feet devoted to scientific exhibits.
“The new location is amazing for us,” said Tom Rockwell, director of new exhibits at the Exploratorium. “It’s accessibility to tourists in the East Bay, the South Bay but it’s also accessibility to new audiences.”
On a recent day, a forklift began hauling equipment out of the Exploratorium’s celebrated workshop, which some argue was truly Oppenheimer’s first exhibit. The vintage drill press was loaded onto a flatbed truck and hauled to the new building.
The workshop will sit in the center of the new building, making it central to the museum’s exhibits which constantly require maintenance.
“We are leaving the place we basically grew up in so there’s some sadness,” Rockwell said.
But not too much sadness.
Exhibit coordinators are already licking their chops as to how they’ll utilize the massive space, jutting into the bay.
“We’re going to have outdoor exhibits,” exhibit coordinator Denise King said. “That means we’re going to be able to use the weather and the tides and the bay water.”
As the move commences, all work has temporarily stopped on all new projects -- probably the first time in history the Exploratorium’s tinkerers have had to stop tinkering.
King says the shop will be the first thing to begin operating in the new space.
“Once we get in there we’re going to set that shop up as soon as possible and start building again,” said King.
For now inside the old Exploratorium, the lessons of science continue. A small girl dashed in and out of a tube-like mist generator simulating a tornado. A small boy watched as a blast of air balanced a ball in mid-air.
In an acknowledgement of the big move, a wall of hand-written cards reflected visitor’s memories over the decades. But even though Tompkins has been there for most of that time, he wasn’t shedding tears for the old space.
“The building is not that important,” Tompkins said. “What’s important is the experiences we can provide for visitors.”