October 1, 2010

The Exploratorium, or playgrounds for the mind

October 1, 2010 - Categories: family, life

In this post about visiting San Francisco, Devin Reams wrote:

We also enjoyed walking around the Marina area and
visiting the Exploratorium. I’ve been to some pretty good science
museums (Denver, Smithsonian) but this place is amazing. The energy
and exhibits possibly could’ve kept us there all day.

Ah, the Exploratorium.

When I was in grade school, one of my most-loved books was the Explorabook: A Kid’s Science Museum in a Book. I read it until it was tattered and falling apart. No, I did more than read it – I did stuff with it. I used the included Fresnel lens to burn holes in leaves. I looked at streetlights through the diffraction grate. I pulled paperclips along paper using the magnet. (Hence the falling-apart thing: I disassembled the book to get to my favourite tools.) My only regret about the book: I wish I had worked up the courage to make agar jelly.

I remember reading and re-reading the blurb about the Exploratorium, the San Francisco science museum that helped develop the book. When my parents were planning our backpacking trip across the United States, there were two things I dreamed about: being tall enough to ride the rollercoasters at Disney World, and going to the Exploratorium.

The Exploratorium was every bit as scientifically magical as I imagined. I could’ve spent days there. We also visited the Smithsonian, which I also loved. (They had a replica of Babbage’s calculating machine!) The Smithsonian probably takes weeks, even years to properly explore. But to a kid without all the deep background one needs to appreciate all the history, what was that compared to the giant soap bubbles and interactive exhibits of a science museum?

Whenever I have time in a new city, I make a trip to its science museum. I went to the one in Odaiba in Tokyo, where I saw a kinetic sculpture that simulated SMTP mail delivery. I went to the one in Boston and the one in Montreal. When I was in San Francisco for another trip, I dropped by the Exploratorium again. The exhibits were a little smaller than I remembered (I’d grown a bit since I was nine years old, but not by much), but it was still magical. I checked out one of the new science museum in Manila when I visited, and I’m looking forward to yet another one that I’ve heard is being built. We’ve been to the Ontario Science Centre a number of times, of course. We’ve even made a trip to a place specifically to see a science museum (Sudbury, Science North).

What keeps me coming back? Many of the exhibits are similar across different science museums, but sometimes I come across an interesting surprise, a clever way of turning a concept into an experience. And even with the familiar exhibits or in the less-endowed museums, there’s always the wonder of someone encountering these ideas for the first time – the kids on school trips, the parents and teachers and other visitors puzzling things through…

For me, science museums are like direct connections to the wonder of discovery. Love love love. I think science exhibit designers must have one of the coolest jobs around. Science museums and libraries are my favourite ways to imagine my tax dollars hard at work.

Share a science museum with someone!