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The Exploratorium is a museum in San Francisco with over 475 participatory exhibits, all of them made onsite, that mix science and art. It also aims to promote museums as informal education centers.

Founded in 1969 by physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer
Frank Oppenheimer
Frank Friedman Oppenheimer was an American physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, was a target of McCarthyism, and was later the founder of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. He was the younger brother of J...

, the Exploratorium offers visitors a variety of ways—including exhibits, webcasts, websites and events—to explore and understand the world around them. In 2011, the Exploratorium received the National Science Board 2011 Public Service Science Award for its contributions to public understanding of science and engineering.


The Exploratorium was founded in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer
Frank Oppenheimer
Frank Friedman Oppenheimer was an American physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, was a target of McCarthyism, and was later the founder of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. He was the younger brother of J...

, a noted experimental physicist and university professor. He served as the museum’s director until his death in 1985.

In 1949, Oppenheimer was forced to resign from his position at the University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is a public research university located in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, United States. It is the oldest and largest part of the University of Minnesota system and has the fourth-largest main campus student body in the United States, with 52,557...

 as a result of inquiry by the House Un-American Activities Committee
House Un-American Activities Committee
The House Committee on Un-American Activities or House Un-American Activities Committee was an investigative committee of the United States House of Representatives. In 1969, the House changed the committee's name to "House Committee on Internal Security"...

. He was drawn into the local high school in Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Springs is a Home Rule Municipality that is the county seat of, and the only incorporated municipality in, Archuleta County, Colorado, United States. The population was 1,591 at the 2000 census...

, where he taught for several years. When Oppenheimer returned to university physics in 1959, he focused on 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
Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Institution is an educational and research institute and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States and by funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its retail operations, concessions, licensing activities, and magazines...

, but he turned it down to work on what he called his "San Francisco project."
He was convinced of the need for public museums to supplement science curricula at all levels. He toured Europe and studied museums on a Guggenheim Fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowships are American grants that have been awarded annually since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those "who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." Each year, the foundation makes...

 in 1965. Then in 1969, with a $50,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation, the Exploratorium opened at the Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District of San Francisco, California, is a monumental structure originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in order to exhibit works of art presented there. One of only a few surviving structures from the Exposition, it is the only one still...


The Exploratorium has been engaged with professional development of teachers and science education reform since its founding. Since Oppenheimer's death in 1985, the Exploratorium has expanded into other domains, including to engage online communities, as well as to create an international network of museums that would help these institutions address problems with general science education.

The Exploratorium is now developing alternative educational experiences out-of-school and online– extending the Exploratorium’s reach via online communities, open-source environments, and more user-produced content and experiences. The Exploratorium also seeks to serve non-professional teachers, including scientists, alternative education leaders, graduate students, journalists, politicians, and parents.


The museum floor of the Exploratorium houses a rotating number of exhibits. Some of the exhibits one can view are mouse stem cells beating like heart cells, worms glowing green with the implanted phosphorescence of a jellyfish gene, or a giant bubble where visitors can encase his or her own head. Many exhibits have also been developed specifically for the online audience on the Exploratorium's website.

There are currently more than 1,000 Exploratorium exhibits (with over 475 on view at any given time). Exhibits cover a range of subject areas, including human perception
Perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of the environment by organizing and interpreting sensory information. All perception involves signals in the nervous system, which in turn result from physical stimulation of the sense organs...

 (such as vision, hearing, learning and cognition), the life sciences, and physical phenomena (such as light, motion, electricity, waves and resonance, and weather). A variety of public programs, artists-in-residence projects, and demonstrations accompany all exhibit collections.


The Exploratorium seeks to brings hands-on inquiry to the educational system by training teachers in the teaching of science. Among the education-based programs are:
  • The Teacher Institute works with novice, middle and high school science teachers to increase science teacher effectiveness and keep teachers in the profession
  • 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 furthers the impact museums and science centers can have on teacher education and school reform. The Center also 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 120 high school students annually. The program combines on-the-job experience and academic instruction to encourage them to explore, teach, and learn.
  • The Making Collaborative creates playful and inventive educational activities using science, art, and technology for the public and shares ideas with a larger audience of educators in museums and other kinds of informal learning environments. Their development lab is the Learning Studio at the Exploratorium. Their public learning space is the Exploratorium's Tinkering Studio.
  • The Field Trip Program provides online resources for teachers, and on-site Explainers to facilitate visits and conduct demonstrations.
  • Learning Tools has over 18 titles in print and annually sells 25,000 copies of Exploratorium-developed publications.
  • explo.tv produces 75 educational Webcasts from the museum and locations around the world annually.
  • The Iron Science Teacher
    Iron Science Teacher
    The Iron Science Teacher is a national competition that celebrates innovation and creativity in science teaching. The competition originated at the Exploratorium in San Francisco...

     is a national competition that celebrates innovation and creativity in science teaching, and originated at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Parodying the cult Japanese TV program, “Iron Chef,” this competition showcases science teachers as they devise classroom activities using a particular ingredient — an everyday item such as a plastic bag, milk carton, or nail. Contestants are currently or formally part of the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute and compete before a live audience for the title of "Iron Science Teacher." Shows are also archived on the Exploratorium's site.


Since 1974, over 250 artists working in various 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. 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. 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. Some artists and performers include Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson
Laura Phillips "Laurie" Anderson is an American experimental performance artist, composer and musician who plays violin and keyboards and sings in a variety of experimental music and art rock styles. Initially trained as a sculptor, Anderson did her first performance-art piece in the late 1960s...

, John Cage
John Cage
John Milton Cage Jr. was an American composer, music theorist, writer, philosopher and artist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde...

, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich
Steve Reich
Stephen Michael "Steve" Reich is an American composer who together with La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass is a pioneering composer of minimal music...

, Brian Eno
Brian Eno
Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno , commonly known as Brian Eno or simply as Eno , is an English musician, composer, record producer, singer and visual artist, known as one of the principal innovators of ambient music.Eno studied at Colchester Institute art school in Essex,...

, Trimpin
Trimpin is a Seattle, Washington-based kinetic sculptor, sound artist, musician, and composer, most of whose pieces integrate both sculpture and music in some way, and many of which make use of computers to play these instruments...

, Walter Kitundu
Walter Kitundu
Walter Kitundu is a musical instrument builder, graphic artist, and musical composer from San Francisco, California.-Biography:Kitundu was born in Rochester, Minnesota and spent his early years in Tanzania. He returned to Minnesota from age 8 to 25, then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in...

, The Mermen
The Mermen
The Mermen are an American rock band from San Francisco, California that formed in 1989.The group's sound was originally rooted in surf and psychedelic rock music of the 1960s, although they have made "sincere attempts to get away from the surf music label" and currently delves into many genres,...

, among many others.

One example of an artist-created work is the off-site Wave Organ
Wave Organ
thumb|A binaural listening boothThe Wave Organ is an acoustic sculpture constructed on the shore of San Francisco Bay by the Exploratorium. Through a series of pipes, the wave organ interacts with the waves of the bay and conveys their sound to listeners at several different stations...

, a unique sonic experience located on a nearby point of land jutting into San Francisco Bay (created by Peter Richards and George Gonzales). Another example is the Tactile Dome (designed by August Coppola
August Coppola
August Floyd Coppola was an American academic, author, film executive and advocate for the arts. He is also known as the father of actor Nicolas Cage.-Family life:...

), a three-dimensional pitch-black labyrinth that visitors must navigate using the sense of touch. New exhibits are added on an on-going basis.


Online since 1993, the Exploratorium was one of the first museums to build a site on the World Wide Web. The site serves 12 million visitors each year, more than 20 times the number of visitors to the physical museum location in San Francisco. It has received the Webby Award
Webby Awards
A Webby Award is an international award presented annually by The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences for excellence on the Internet with categories in websites, interactive advertising, online film and video, and mobile....

 for Best Science (and Education) Site five times since 1997.


The Exploratorium's website is an extension of the experiences on the museum's floor. It provides "real" experiences for online audiences. 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 unique locations from factories to particle accelerators. Scientists in the field also blog and use social media to communicate directly with web audiences.


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.

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 as one of the 12 most effective non-profits in the United States.


560,000 people annually visit the Exploratorium. Of these, 70% are adults and 30% are children. 61% are from the Bay Area, 30% from the rest of California, 6% from other states, and 3% outside U.S. 49% receive free or discounted admission. 97,000 students and chaperones visit the museum each year; of these, 67,000 participate in the Field Trip program.

Exhibitions and programs

More than 1,000 original interactive exhibits, displays, and artworks have been designed, prototyped, and built on site. 475 of these are currently on view. In addition, more than 2,500 exhibits have been installed at 200 science centers, museums, universities, and other organizations worldwide.

Hands-on exhibits are common place. Throughout the year, programs include original plays, film screenings, craft demonstrations, access to artist studios, and lectures.

Education and research

Since 1995, an estimated 6,000 educators from 48 states and 11 countries have participated in Exploratorium workshops. 500 U.S. teachers participate in more than 40 hours of intensive professional development each year. A national center that supports professional development for informal educators has reached more than 500 members annually through workshops, conferences, and publications.

Educational Outreach reaches 3,500 underserved children and families in the community. The Explainer Program hires and trains 120 high school students each year. The Osher Fellows Program hosts 4 to 6 resident scholars, scientists, educators, and artists.

Budget and staff

The Exploratorium's 2011–2012 budget was $44,670,579. There are 526 total employees; 244 are full-time equivalent. There is also an international team of 225 volunteers that contributes more than 15,000 hours annually in the museum.

External links