Exploratorium Lifts Curtain For Museum Sneak Peek

San Francisco Exploratorium set to open in new $300M digs

After four decades enlightening visitors to science with its clever exhibits, it seems San Francisco's Exploratorium is finally seeing the light.

Following 44 years in the dim halls of the Palace of Fine Arts, the beloved science museum is poised to reopen in its new 330,000 square foot, glass-walled digs in a transformed finger pier on the city's waterfront. "We have windows for the first time really in Exploratorium history," said Exploratorium executive director Dennis Bartels.

"So we get to bring the outdoors, indoors as well." For the next phase of its journey, the museum brought along hundreds of its strange science contraptions from the old space, while creating 150 new ones for the concrete and steel pier.

The stump of a large 330-year old Douglas Fir tree salvaged from Olema sat in one of the galleries. Visitors were encouraged to touch its bark which was already flaking off in chunks, a week before the museum's official opening.

"We sort of anticipate a slow evolution of the tree," said artist Michael Brown, "as it sort of gets picked at by the visitors."

In an exploration station, visitors got to eyeball a young woman dissecting an eyeball from a cow. In another corner of the massive building, people gazed into a giant parabolic mirror which made images look as though they were hovering in space.

"One of the most satisfying things to hear is the early previews," said Bartels. "Everyone says we kept the spirit and the culture, and even the quirkiness and the funk."

The museum is also taking cues from its new location, thrust out into the bay with water lapping at all sides.

A healthy amount of the exhibits are devoted to studying the bay's tides, currents and biology. In a room the museum dubbed the classroom, a contraption called the Wired Pier kept a running log of Bay tides and water quality.

"The Wired Pier is a platform for us to do research working with local researchers and NOAA," said project manager Mary Miller, "to really understand what's happening; the dynamics of the bay waters, the surface currents, the tides."

Those exhibits Mother Nature didn't create, the museum's team of tinkerers were racing to complete.

The museum's workshop was arranged in full view of visitors, just as it was when Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium in the Palace of Fine Arts more than four decades ago. A few feet from the shop, a tall Tinkerer's mechanical clock extended its dial as a mallet struck a gong to mark the hour.

The museum is set to reopen next Wednesday - officials said tickets for opening day were nearly sold out.

Even as the Exploratorium begins to hold previews in advance of its opening, workers in hard hats were still scurrying to finish the last minute details.

Still, it may be one of the few remodeling projects, people were happy to acknowledge, will probably never end.

"It will always be a constantly evolving institution," said Brown, "We're always making new exhibits, new experiences."

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