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The Exploratorium
Established 1969
Location San Francisco, California, USA
Type Science, Art and Human Perception
Visitor figures 600,000 visits annually
Director Dennis Bartels
Website [1]

The Exploratorium is a museum in San Francisco full of hundreds of hands-on exhibits, most of them made onsite, that mix science and art. It is also a leader in the movement to promote museums as informal education centers. Founded in 1969 by the noted physicist and educator Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium offers visitors a variety of ways—exhibits, Webcasts, Web sites, events, and more—to explore and understand the world around them.


Early History

Frank Oppenheimer

The Exploratorium was founded in 1969 by the noted physicist and educator Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, a distinguished experimental physicist and university professor, 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, after a distinguished career that included work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, directed by his brother J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer was forced to resign from his university position as a result of harassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee. For the next ten years he was a cattle rancher in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Banishment from academic physics did not end his career; it marked the beginning of several new ones. For example, he was drawn into the local high school in Pagosa Springs, which, at the time, had 300 students and one science teacher. He taught there for several years. When Oppenheimer returned to university physics in 1959, he became a central 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 museums on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965. 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 throughout its cavernous interior. Today, the nearly 100,000-square feet of exhibit space contains over 400 Exploratorium-made exhibits at any given time, as well as special events, programs, and Webcasts.

Oppenheimer's insistence on excellence, his knack for new ways of looking at things, his sense of humor and whimsy, his high respect for invention and play, and his own lack of pretentiousness formed the core of the Exploratorium, and are still part of the museum's culture. 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. See Frank Oppenheimer's papers (1972, 1973, 1974).

Recent History

Dennis Bartels, Director of the Exploratorium

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.

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. 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. The Exploratorium also serves 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. Examples of exhibits one can view are mouse stem cells beating like heart cells or worms glowing green with the implanted phosphorescence of a jellyfish gene, or one can encase one's head in a giant bubble. One 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


Teachers from the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute examine the "String Thing" they built

The Exploratorium brings hands-on inquiry to the educational system by training teachers in the teaching of science. 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.
  • produces 50 educational Webcasts from the museum and locations around the world annually.


Walter Kitundu - Artist in Residence and MacArthur Fellow

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.

The Exploratorium 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, The Mermen, 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. The site serves 24 million visitors each year, more than 50 times the number of visitors to the physical museum location in San Francisco. It is one of the most visited museum websites in the world. It has received the Webby Award for Best Science (and Education) Site five times since 1997. Beyond its own website, the Exploratorium also participates in the social networking sites facebook, flickr, twitter and YouTube.


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 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 communicate 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

Exploratorium Influence

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 (2009-2010)


  • 575,000 people annually visit the Exploratorium
  • 52% of visitors are adults and 48% are children
  • 51% are from the Bay Area, 30% from the rest of California, 14% from other states, 5% outside U.S.
  • 110,000 school-age students and their chaperones visit the museum each year, of these, 80,000 participate in the Field Trip program
  • 11,500 individuals and families are Exploratorium members
  • 47% of visitors receive free or discounted admission
  • 43,000 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

  • More than 1000 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 250 artists in residence
  • Exhibits are located at 60 international and 66 U.S. science centers
  • Partnerships with 13 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
  • 8 staff members, including 3 PhDs, comprise one of the world’s largest museum research and evaluation groups


  • 24 million Web visits annually access, 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
  • (no Restaurant)
  • Ample free parking

The Exploratorium is available to rent for private events during evening hours.

Budget and Staff

  • 2009–10 budget: $32,242,270
  • 491 total employees; 266 full-time equivalent; 42% people of color
  • an international team of 225 volunteers contributes more than 12,000 hours annually

External links


  • Oppenheimer, Frank, "The Exploratorium: A Playful Museum Combines Perception and Art in Science Education," American Journal of Physics, v. 40, pp. 978-984 (1972)
  • Oppenheimer, Frank, "Teaching and Learning," American Journal of Physics, v. 41, pp. 1310-131 (1973)
  • Oppenheimer, Frank, "The Study of Perception as a Part of Teaching Physics," American Journal of Physics, v. 42, pp. 531-537 (1974)
  • Markoff, J., "San Francisco's Exploratorium," BYTE, v 9, n 6, p 279-82, June 1984
  • Iyer, S.V., Beck, A., Ravaioli, U., Terstriep, J., "Distributed exploratorium for high performance computational techniques," Proceedings Supercomputing '94 (Cat. No.94CH34819), p 117-25, 1994
  • Ambach, J., Perrone, C., Repenning, A., "Remote exploratoriums: Combining network media and design environments," Computers & Education, v 24, n 3, p 163-76, April 1995
  • Sevitsky, G., Martin, J., Zhou, M., Goodarzi, A., Rabinowitz, H., "The NYNEX network exploratorium visualization tool: visualizing telephone network planning," Proceedings of the SPIE - The International Society for Optical Engineering, v 2656, p 170-80, 1996
  • Prakash, E.C., "Implementation of a WWW interactive 3D graphics exploratorium," Proceedings of IEEE. IEEE Region 10 Conference. TENCON 99. `Multimedia Technology for Asia-Pacific Information Infrastructure' (Cat. No.99CH37030), p 930-3 vol.2, 1999
  • Semper, R.J., "Live @ the Exploratorium - providing a public experience with current science through Webcasting," International Journal of Modern Physics C, v 12, n 4, p 439-41, May 2001
  • Hsi, S., Fait, H., "RFID enhances visitors' museum experience at the Exploratorium," Communications of the ACM, v 48, n 9, p 60-5, Sept. 2005
  • New York Times, "Taking the Rough-and-Tumble Approach to Science", March 29, 2006
  • Exploratorium, "Tactile Dome: Original 1971 press release", retrieved November 14, 2006.
  • Forces for Good, "The Exploratorium creating social change", October 26, 2007
  • National Research Counil, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, "Informal Science Learning, a new study by the National Research Counil", January 14, 2009
  •, "Exploratorium", retrieved July 23, 2009
  • Cole, K.C., "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens - Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up", 2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Coordinates: 37°48′10″N 122°26′54″W / 37.80278°N 122.44833°W / 37.80278; -122.44833


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