Exploratorium prepares for larger profile

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday October 5, 2011
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Long hidden in the shadow of the Palace of Fine Arts and shrouded in the Golden Gate's infamous fog, the Exploratorium is preparing to move into a waterfront space that will give it a larger public profile.

In a sense, the science institution is prepping its own coming out to a new audience of Bay Area residents and the tourists who flock to San Francisco.

"I would say it is an opening out and breaking out of the cave we have been in and cave mentality to a much more open and welcoming and accessible place, both physically and intellectually I would say," said Kurt Feichtmeir, a gay man who is the Exploratorium's director of extended learning and has worked there for 30 years. "We are going through a real transformation."

Work is already under way at its new home, Piers 15 and 17 along the Embarcadero north of the Ferry Building. The $300 million relocation project is slated for completion in 2013 with a grand opening sometime in the spring or early summer of that year.

Due to the lack of public transit options at its current site, which the Exploratorium has occupied since 1969, it has been a priority since 1998 to find a more accessible address for the institution, said Executive Director Dennis Bartels, Ph.D.

"We had been in search of an adequate place for the Exploratorium to move to and we found more than an adequate one," said Bartels. "It is a big, empty shell with steel girders, high ceilings and a concrete floor."

The new facility will be five times larger with a total of 360,000 square feet of indoor space plus another 200,000 square feet outdoors.

"There is room to experiment and grow. We are a creative idea shop," said Bartels.

The Exploratorium staff is already preparing for the move and thinking of how to introduce itself to San Francisco's eastern neighborhoods and residents of the East Bay. Bartels said the institution is looking at how to bring its exhibits into places like the Castro, Mission, and Hunter's Point.

"We want to find new ways to connect with the rest of the city," he said.

It is also working with the city's visitor bureau on marketing to LGBT tourists as well as the international market and conventions, something Bartels said the Exploratorium has not done in the past.

"We weren't getting a lot of tourists out there. With the new location it is going to be a totally different dynamic," he said.

Already a magnet for school groups – the Exploratorium estimates more than 400,000 students a year use its inquiry-based teaching tools – it expects its new site will not only broaden its reach with Bay Area schools but also attract more adults. It is planning to be open late several nights a week to accommodate older visitors.

"Right now, we are open one evening a month. To be open three evenings a week is a game changer," said Feichtmeir. "It makes it more possible for working people and adults who don't want to be trampled by school groups to visit. It is going to be a different environment."

The Exploratorium is documenting construction on its new home and launched a special section on its website to track the progress. It can be accessed at http://www.exploratorium.edu/tv/?project=103.