The Exploratorium, long a favorite destination for Bay Area families, has relocated to Pier 15 along the Embarcadero of San Francisco Bay, finally wrapping up its move from its old location at the Palace of Fine Arts. It opens to the public with an ambitious array of public entertainment offerings, many of them free, on April 17.
On an advance visit to the museum, I wandered its huge, spacious grounds and came away impressed — but with some caveats for 510Families readers.
The 330,000 square-foot indoor/outdoor project — nearly three times the size of the original museum — is being designed and constructed with the goal of becoming the largest net-zero energy museum in the United States, if not the world. “It was a bit dark, a bit dusty, and isolated,” noted Dennis M. Bartels, executive director of the Exploratorium, at a pre-opening media event April 9. “Now, we have the opportunity to open on the front porch of San Francisco.”
Visitors to the old Exploratorium will recognize some of their favorite exhibits, but among the more than 600 pieces on display will be 150 brand new exhibits. The space is more vast and inviting than the older location was, and gives its many hands-on exhibits more breathing room — plus a lot more places for parents to rest their tired feet.
A new “tinkering room” is also set up for small hands to create science projects with expert help.
A spokesperson notes, “Designed for all ages, the Exploratorium is regarded as the world’s foremost interactive science museum, designed to make natural phenomena and the manufactured world around us both exciting and understandable.” Many of the Exploratorium’s new outdoor displays will also be free to the public with no ticket required.
There is a gourmet cafeteria, the Seaglass restaurant, onsite with numerous options including Welsh rarebit (melted artisanal cheese on toast); prepared salads with grains and beans; pizzette and sandwiches; organic, free range spatchcocked chicken (the bird is flattened out and roasted); crispy polenta sticks with Gorgonzola dip; and roasted asparagus and other vegetable dishes.
Architect Marc L’Italien has designed the space to capture every ray of light from the bay (on its eastern end) and dazzling urban skyline to its west, and to artfully steer visitors through the myriad rooms and displays.
However — and here is where I start the caveats — they’ve kept the unforgiving concrete floors that used to torture parents’ feet in the old Exploratorium — I still recall my most recent five-hour visit there and wince.
And although the café’s offerings are admirable, they are indeed pricey, with the chicken dish at $12 half/$24 whole; roasted potatoes and asparagus offered separately at $4 apiece; and $11 for the pizzette.
The biggest shift occurs when a visitor contemplates a trip from the East Bay.
Gone is the beloved free parking at the Palace of Fine Arts. This new Exploratorium’s “net-zero energy” campaign is felt most strongly here, as guests must either park in city lots or at some of the city’s most expensive meters (Sundays are no longer free at San Francisco meters).
The closest BART station is at the Embarcadero, a 10-minute walk away: certainly do-able, but worth planning for if you’re bringing a brood. Similarly, there is ferry service from Alameda, Jack London Square in Oakland arriving at the Ferry Building, a 10-minute walk away.
Admission is $25 for adults, with lower rates for Bay Area residents, youth, seniors, students, teachers and the disabled. Advance ticket purchase is strongly recommended; in order to minimize lines and avoid overcrowding, all tickets through September 2013 will feature timed entry.
The Exploratorium is free to everyone 5 days each year effective Fall 2013. Free Days are: Groundhog Day (Feb. 2); Pi Day (Mar. 14); Mothers‘ Day (2nd Sunday in May, from 2014); Engineering Day (last Sunday in September); and Founder‘s Day (2nd Sunday in October). The popular Discover & Go program, which offers free tickets to library card holders from Oakland, Berkeley and other local cities, is due to take effect here in the future but when I checked at press time it had not yet been set up for The Exploratorium.
For more information, visit www.exploratorium.edu.