Exploratorium: The Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception, San Francisco
I was about thirteen, visiting the US west coast for the first time with my parents when we came to San Francisco. We had a day off in our precisely planned German-style schedule and I urged my mom to join me in visiting the Palace of Fine Arts where I heard would be a science museum with real tornados and lightning and all kind of awesome things.
The Palace of Fine Arts is in a hard to reach small park with a little lake between Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf and we ended up walking there from Fisherman’s Wharf which takes some time when you are thirteen and easily bored.
To me it was an eye opener of what a museum can look like. One could actually ‘explore’ all exhibits, there were explanations on what you could do and people helping you in operating the experiments. You could run around and there seemed to be no rules except that you are free to try out everything.
Years later I travel the world, usually visiting the Bay Area once or twice a year. Whenever I’m in SF I leave some free time to visit the Exploratorium. When my wife and I went to California for the first time as a couple we made a stop there (it was still located at the Palace of Fine Arts, then).
I saw kids running around just like I did, but I also saw a lot of parents joining them. The old feeling was still there, although some exhibits looked a bit dated. But now I grew aware of parents telling their kids how to ‘properly’ operate the experiments, not touching everything, keeping quiet, … well, you see what I mean.
This surely was the case when I was a kid as well and I just did not see it back then. But seeing something like this as the scientist I am today I felt regret that these kid’s experience of the place was different than mine years earlier.
One of the exhibits was a rotating disk on which you could place smaller objects like disks and spheres of different material such as wood or steel. It wasn’t very much frequented as it seemed much less spectacular than, say, the tornado.
Some of the disks had holes in their middle through which you could stick a little, well, stick so the small disk would rotate when placed on the larger rotating disk, the stick being the axis of rotation.
Most kids standing there just aimlessly threw stuff on the disk, seeing it fall off the disk or just lying on it. I started playing with a disk using the stick, trying out different places on the rotating disk, seeing what would happen if I get it to rotate and then remove the stick. The children stopped just throwing the objects on the disk and started imitating what I did. The crowd of children grew. I did not explain anything, we all just started experimenting, seeing what would happen when we used a heavy, large steel sphere instead of a small, light wooden sphere or a ping pong ball.
It almost felt like I was thirteen again, exploring what would happen, immersed in the wonders of a simple rotating disk, joined by fellow investigators that carefully carried out experiments of their own while watching eagerly what the others tried to achieve. Some of us grew competitive in how long we could place an object on the disk before it spiralled off and how close we could bring objects together before they kicked each other off the disk. Then, a group of parents came ushering the children to the next exhibit because there was still so much to explore and they wanted to leave in an hour. The moment I was thirteen again faded and I went back to my wife who had been waiting patiently for me to stop playing.
To me, the Exploratorium will always be my favourite place in SF (besides the little Chinese hot pot restaurant my wife and I discovered close to the Golden Gate park later on that day). It is the place where I can lose myself for hours finding the sweet spot where the small rotating disk will seem to stand still on the large rotating disk.