By Sarabeth Leong

Natives, transplants, and tourists, rejoice! The Exploratorium is reopening its doors on April 17 at its new home on Piers 15 and 17. The world’s foremost interactive science museum is upgrading to three times the available space of its old Palace of Fine Arts digs. With 600 indoor and outdoor exhibits, a quarter of which will be brand new, there is definitely a lot to look forward to. For 44 years the Exploratorium has been wowing school-age children and their chaperons alike, and this new, much larger location creates an opportunity for not only science, but also unique, contemporary art, as well as 1.5 acres of free, outdoor space. And with the Exploratorium setting its sights on becoming the largest net-zero energy-use museum in the U.S., if not the world, the building and facility themselves are a marvel to behold.

With the Exploratorium now inhabiting Piers 15 and 17, there’s a lot more space for new endeavors. San Francisco–based artist Doug Hollis’ large-scale Aeolian Harp harnesses the gusts of wind coming from the wind tunnel created by Piers 15 and 17. The sounds produced by the wind streaming through the harp’s chords are transmitted mechano-acoustically to speakers. If art and science could have a baby, then surely this synergy of nature, art, and design would be their golden child. The Aeolian Harp is just one of 40 new art projects that will be on display at the opening, and the harp itself is part of the museum’s permanent collection. For the first time ever, the Exploratorium will have the chance to present outdoor learning exhibits curated by senior artist Shawn Lani. Combined with the 1.5 acres of free space—which boasts a public plaza and promenade, a bayside cafe and a plaza side cafe, food carts, and the Exploratorium Store with interactive exhibits—the new and improved Exploratorium would surely make any founder proud.

In 1969, when Frank Oppenheimer turned down an offer to design a new branch for the Smithsonian to instead work on his own project opening San Francisco’s Exploratorium, who could have foreseen that his legacy would lead the way in green technology? Then again, Oppenheimer constructed his first exhibits from donated post–World War II machinery. So really, even in the Exploratorium’s inception, recycling and reusing were established practices. And although reusing materials in 1969 might have been a big deal, in working toward net-zero energy use, the Exploratorium has quite a few more innovative tricks up its sleeve these days.

Nearly 6,000 SunPower solar panels cover the roof of the new building. These bad boys aren’t just some fancy name brand; they’re actually 50 percent more efficient than traditional solar panels. They’re so effective that on warmer days, the panels will produce more energy than the museum needs to run. The extra energy will return to the city’s grid for public and private use. The panels cost about $1 million but should pay for themselves in under 10 years. The lobby will feature a display of the solar panels’ real-time performance, since the solar-paneled rooftop is not an exhibit itself.

Another green innovation is the Bay Water Heating and Cooling System. Engineers from Integral Group, architects from EHDD, and marine contractors from Power Engineering Construction Company and Nibbi Brothers General Contractor all collaborated. Every hour, 73,800 gallons of water will circulate through the floors of the facility, either heating if it’s too cold or cooling if it’s too warm, to keep the Exploratorium at a comfortable 71 degrees. And it’s not just these grand-scale efforts of conservation: Curators are positioning exhibits optimally, away from the walls to take advantage of natural light during the day; the restrooms are equipped with waterless urinals and dual flush toilets; and designers are carefully constructing not just the infrastructure of the museum, but also the exhibits themselves, using recycled and low-emitting materials along with certified wood and high-performance glass to reduce heat gain.

San Francisco’s goal of becoming a zero-waste city by 2020 may sound ludicrous to some, but the new Exploratorium, with its plan to be a net-zero energy-use facility, is proving it’s possible—fun, even. With the F streetcar stopping right outside its doors and many other Muni lines with stops within walking distance, there’s no excuse to pass on this. And with hundreds of exhibits, 40 new art installations, gorgeous views of the bay, and so much more, the Exploratorium on the Pier is not to be missed!

The new Exploratorium opens this April! For more information visit


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This article was published in:
Idea Issue - Released March 2013
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