New museum puts Bay Area on exhibit

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday April 10, 2013
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The trunk and partial root system of an old growth Douglas fir grace the bayside East Gallery inside the Exploratorium's new waterfront museum. Discovered in Olema on a woodland spiritual retreat owned by the Vedanta Society, the seven and a half ton specimen has been carved into four sections with benches made from its wood providing respite for tired visitors.

"We wanted to have a large object or a large organism because it helps represent the life all around us," explained Michael Brown, a gay man and local artist who helped conceive of the installation. "I refer to it as my big wood."

Look closely at the base of the 343-year-old tree; there growing on the bark are moss and a young blackberry plant.

"It is supporting life," said Brown, 52, who was hired two years ago to help design the exhibit, titled "The Tree Experience."

He began his collaboration with the science institution two decades ago as an artist-in-residence, which led to his exhibit titled "Meanderings." Over the years he assisted with the museum's "Revealing Bodies" and "Frogs" shows.

This time he scoured the state's old growth forests, with trips north to Humboldt and Mendocino counties, in search of the right tree to import back for the new exhibit. He found it about an hour north of San Francisco preserved on a hillside where it had come to rest after being toppled by the wind 10 years prior.

Pointing to a small circular ring in one cut section of the trunk, Brown explained that, "here, you can see where a little branch popped out."

As the relocated Exploratorium readies to open its doors at Piers 15 and 17 along the Embarcadero Wednesday, April 17, Brown took part in a sneak peak media day Tuesday, April 9 to show off the renovated warehouse and outdoor spaces now teeming with science displays and exhibits that showcase the bay and city life.

"If you are at all interested in science, this is a great place to come to," said Brown.

Exploratorium officials are betting visitor numbers will increase now that they are housed in a more centrally located facility. Until last year the museum, founded by Frank Oppenheimer, had called the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina home.

"Now we have this brand new platform to be more impactful and to attract many more audiences than we ever did before," said Exploratorium Executive Director Dennis Bartels.

While the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and bay were stunning, the old location was inaccessible for many tourists. Locals also found it hard to access, and the institution set out in 1998 to find a suitable site closer to the heart of the city and its public transit infrastructure.

While the palace site was "beautiful," said Bartels, it was also "a bit dark, a bit dusty, and a bit isolated. Today we get to open on the front porch of San Francisco, the city we love."

Bayside home

Two years ago construction began on the Exploratorium's new $300 million bayside home. Its 330,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space is three times the size of its previous location and has been filled with 600 exhibits, 150 of which are brand new.

The interior space resembles the former exhibition hall and Bartels promised that old location's "quirkiness and funkiness" survived the move.

Being more connected to the heart of the city is reshaping how staff view the role the Exploratorium plays and what will now be on exhibit, said Shawn Lani, a senior artist and curator of the new site's outdoor gallery space. Especially for the installations outside, the goal is to have visitors rethink how they comprehend the urban landscape.

"We are enlivening the view not only by having you see more but also understanding more. What happens after you leave is more important than what you see here," he said. "It is a civic role we are asking the museum to play now. It is a very different relationship the museum has with the city."

An art installation called "Fog Bridge" by the Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya, that is located on a pedestrian bridge between the two piers accessible to the public, is aimed at fostering a love affair between San Franciscans and their famous foggy weather.

"It is based on meteorological conditions. The air is the mold; the wind is sculpting," explained Nakaya. "I just create water droplets in the same form as the natural fog."

In the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery above the Seaglass Restaurant exhibits focus on the city, its geology, and the local weather conditions.

"It is dedicated to exploring the local landscape," explained Susan Schwartzenberg, a senior artist at the Exploratorium.

Exploratorium store manager Rachel Haden demonstrates a vortex machine in the store of the new museum.

(Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Other exhibits visualize the conditions of the bay itself and track the ships sailing by. Sebastian Martin, a geologist and co-curator of the space, created a topographical map of the Bay Area that can have various data points projected onto it, from census numbers to U.S. Geological Survey findings.

"It is a blank canvas on which we can bring the bay to life with any data we choose," said Martin.

The ability to showcase exhibits has also been incorporated into the museum store, which is larger and now open to the public. One installation called "Vortex" that models tornados was specifically built for the space.

"It is incredibly exciting," said store manager Rachel Hayden, 35, a bisexual woman who lives in Oakland. "We are able to bring a little bit more overlap between science and art in the museum."

The Exploratorium will cost $25 for general admission, with a variety of discounts for Bay Area residents and certain groups. It will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and until 10 p.m. Wednesdays.

Thursday evenings from 6 to 10 p.m. will be adults only (ages 18 and up) and cost $15, $10 for members. To purchase tickets online go to