Partner Spotlight | Exploratorium


Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer. Image courtesy the Exploratorium Facebook page.
As we continue to highlight the resiliency of our partners through this pandemic here at BARTable, the second in the “Partner Spotlight” series comes to us from the Exploratorium. A San Francisco staple and destination location along the Embarcadero at Pier 15, it is a spot for young and old alike to immerse themselves in learning, questioning, experiencing and experimenting all things science. Their doors remain closed, but their scientific spirit is alive, well and in full bloom impressively in the digital “new normal” world we currently live in.
Robyn Higdon, Exploratorium Senior Director of Visitor Experience.
Robyn Higdon, Exploratorium Senior Director of Visitor Experience.
Our chat here is with Robyn Higdon, the Exploratorium’s Senior Director of Visitor Experience. Robyn has worked at the Exploratorium for over 30 years. You will undoubtedly be humored when you read how she got her first job there – it should provide for a good giggle! Her role oversees so many things we love about and at the Exploratorium, ensuring visitors have the ultimate experience in their expansive space. Outside the realm of the museum, she has served as Co-Principal Investigator on various scientific projects for the NSF, NOAA, and NASA, and for her work has received several Webby and MUSE awards. If that isn’t enough, on the weekends for fun, she works on an “off-the-grid” cabin in the California gold country.
Like it did for us, you’ll most likely learn more about the Exploratorium from Robyn that will make you love it more (who knew that was even possible!) or perhaps introduce you to a place you’ll want to experience and learn more about! Read on and enjoy:
A little bit about the museum, some history, Robyn’s involvement and, how she came to the Exploratorium
“The Exploratorium opened to the public in the fall of 1969, in the cavernous—and very empty—Palace of Fine Arts, which was once part of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco’s Marina District.
Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium. He was a brilliant physicist and alongside his brother, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had worked on the 'Manhattan Project.' He was barred from pursuing scientific research during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, and so he started teaching high school physics. Frank was no typical science teacher. He put down the textbook and filled his classroom with the hands-on tools and materials that had become his trademark and that would ultimately lead him to create the Exploratorium. Frank poured heart and soul into his 'San Francisco Project,' working alongside the artists, educators, and exhibit developers. He served as the museum’s director until just before his death in 1985.
In 2013, the Exploratorium moved to Pier 15 along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. The move gave us a lot more room to grow and experiment. It also put us a short walk from the Embarcadero BART station, allowing for easy access for people coming from the East Bay.
I first visited the Exploratorium in 1977. It was on a school field trip, and my friends and I looked forward to it all year. It blew my elementary school mind! I couldn’t believe that grown-ups would create such an amazing place of discovery, and that they would trust me to interact with all those amazing experiments. I learned so much that day. I learned to notice and to ask questions. It was a very powerful memory. I eventually moved to San Francisco and started to go to the Exploratorium regularly (tip: it’s even better as an adult!). One day, I got busted trying to sneak in without paying. Instead of ejecting me, they offered me a job! That was in 1989, and I have never had a boring workday since. I literally worked my way up from the mailroom to be the Director of Visitor Experience. Best. Job. Ever.
My job is to do everything I can to ensure that all our visitors have an amazing experience, just like I did in 1977. We want to encourage curiosity and the joy of learning. Our mission is to create inquiry-based experiences that transform learning worldwide. Our vision is a world where people think for themselves and can confidently ask questions, question answers, and understand the world around them. It may sound like a very lofty goal for a museum, but I have lived it and I know it really happens...and not just at Pier 15.
Most people don’t know that we work with science educators across the state of California, supporting them to teach science through hands-on learning. And we also collaborate with partners and museums around the world to create learning experiences that can ignite curiosity in their own local communities.”
The Exploratorium’s relationship to SF and the Bay Area
“When the Exploratorium opened, Richard M. Nixon was President, the Vietnam War and racial tensions divided the nation, and Neil Armstrong had just taken humankind’s first walk on the moon. More than 70 million children from the post-war baby boom were becoming teenagers and young adults, and San Francisco had become a nexus for social experimentation. It was the perfect place—and the perfect time—to try out a new way of learning. The creative, experimental spirit of San Francisco has fueled the Exploratorium for five decades, and during that time we’ve become a place where local schools come for field trips, adults come on dates, and local families come with their children. Just among our staff, we have great stories about first kisses in the Shadow Box, marriage proposals in the Tactile Dome, and weddings in our Observatory. As far as I know, we haven’t had any babies born at the Exploratorium, but there was one very close call! I hope we’ve become an integral part of locals’ memories of growing up in the Bay Area.
We are also one of the biggest employers of Bay Area teenagers, so a lot of young adults get some of their first professional experience at the Exploratorium. Having 120 teenagers on staff is truly an adventure! The 'Explainers' do a great job of keeping us on our toes, challenging us to think in new ways, and ensuring that we stay relevant to the next generation.
We’ve been working to expand our outreach and presence into local neighborhoods, too. We have a 'Science of Skateboarding' parklet, co-developed by youth from the Jamestown Community Center in the Mission, that we park in different locations around town. We have placed exhibits on Market Street, Civic Center Plaza, and the Buchanan Mall. We have a mobile exhibition that travels to libraries in San Mateo. Currently we have an exhibition on the front steps of San Francisco Main Library, and in a few months, we will be premiering some cool new exhibits near Alvord Lake (at the Haight Street entrance to Golden Gate Park.) Being able to work with community partners and create connections with people throughout the city is so rewarding! Each of these neighborhood groups have taught us so much about how to build better experiences.”
Image courtesy of Bruce Damonte.
Image courtesy of Bruce Damonte.
How the pandemic has affected the museum
“Like so many of our sister institutions, we are currently closed. We’ve only been closed twice before: for one day after 9/11, and for three days after the 1989 earthquake. It is heartbreaking to see the Exploratorium empty of visitors. I miss the squeals of delight, the smiling faces, and the joy that usually fills our galleries. But, as an institution of science, we will remain closed until it is safe to open. Until that day, we are offering some great activities, talks, and story times on our website and digital channels. We’ve posted some new resources for teachers adjusting to remote classrooms and parents helping their home-bound students learn more about science. We also have over 285 'Science Snacks'- activities that use cheap, readily available materials--for free on our website. Check them out!
I want to extend our deepest gratitude to those who are supporting us with financial contributions right now, especially our new and returning members. We really do need it, and we are humbled by, and extremely grateful for, the generosity we’ve been shown during our closure.”
How the BLM movement has affected the museum
“The BLM movement has shed light on work we need to do as an organization. As a nation and an institution, we have arrived at a pivotal moment—one in which we can no longer carry on as we have done in past chapters or deny the tremendous harm that our collective racism does to our communities. The Exploratorium is committed to a journey towards equity and anti-racism. 
We are looking within, as individual staff members and institutionally, and acknowledging the ways in which we are a part of the problem. We acknowledge that we haven’t done enough to hear and highlight Black voices both internally and externally. With a mission focused on science education, we acknowledge that the sciences have historically been dominated by white men and have in many instances actively excluded scholars of color and their contributions.
We are taking specific actions as well. We have created two staff positions to help our staff and senior leadership to focus on concrete actions for our future. To actively eliminate systemic bias and inequities, we will scrutinize our own internal systems, policies, and practices, including our hiring and retention practices. We will identify ways to make our galleries and visitor experience more inclusive, welcoming, and engaging to all people. In our work with educators across California, we will increase our efforts to help these professionals inspire students in topics of science with the most equitable practices possible. As we collaborate around the world, we will prioritize learning more from our partnerships with diverse cultures and engage with humility. We will do more to highlight Black scientists, scholars, artists, and community members in programs and exhibitions.”
Where the pandemic has provided silver linings for the organization including best lessons that have been learned
“Being closed has given us a chance to reflect, take a breath, and think about what questions we need to ask ourselves.
The first question was: how can we continue to provide great inquiry or learning moments while distancing? This one was relatively easy. As I mentioned earlier, we went digital: posting a lot of new content, highlighted gems from the past, and we have taken our Thursday evening adult program 'After Dark' online. 
The second question was: how can we reopen safely? (we are a hands-on museum after all!) This one was more challenging, but we have decided to bring all our cool observing exhibits to the foreground. When we are able to reopen, there will be less touching, but a whole lot of amazing things to look at, notice, and do. Then we thought, why stop there?
Which takes me to our final question: how can we not waste this crisis? If we must change some of the experience, why not push ourselves to do more? So, we are tinkering in all of our spaces. We will bring back some 'curious contraptions,' (mechanized sculptures that utilize gears and other simple tools of movement), we will open up a space for visitors to share their stories of this intense time, and we will have a lot of crazy mirrors to play with. If we can open this Fall, we will have an amazing exhibition of glowing, bright and shiny art pieces. If we open in the Spring, we plan for a really exciting new outdoor space, and if we open in Summer, and it’s safe to do so, we will have an Exploratorium ‘maker faire’ that will be off-the-charts cool. The Exploratorium will be the same, but totally different. I can’t wait to welcome people back!”
Newly adopted best practices that will remain once things return to a post-pandemic “new normal”
“We want to hold onto this momentum and openness to change. We want to continue to be more flexible and take more risks. I hope that we have become braver, more willing to try new things, more sensitive to the needs of visitors, and open to a bit more uncertainty.”
Image courtesy Exploratorium Facebook page.Image courtesy Exploratorium Facebook page.
How are museum employees spending their time & how are they doing?
“Like myself, the staff is really missing our visitors, each other, and the exhibits themselves! The majority of staff are working from home, which means no buzzers going off, no spinning lights, no new exhibits to check out between meetings. Being in your living room is simply not as inspirational as being in our learning laboratory. That said, they are doing fantastic things.
Our program team has been hard at work creating digital programs for 'Earth Day,' 'World Oceans Day,' and the adults-only 'After Dark,' which happens online every Thursday evening. Our exhibition staff is working on floor plans for reopening (we are moving hundreds of exhibits!).
Our teachers have been creating lots of online resources, videos, and 'Science Snacks' for our online 'Learning Toolbox.' Over the summer, these same educators have been conducting online professional development programs for science teachers across California—helping them adjust to online classrooms, and making science come alive for students through engaging instruction, investigation and problem-solving—learner-centered activities that allow students to follow the same practices of scientists and engineers.  
Technical staff have been working on large projects that would have been very difficult to do with the public in the building, such as an overhaul of the Bay Water System that regulates the temperature in our building by pulling up water from the bay and pumping throughout the walls of the pier.
Our Custodial Services team has been cleaning every single surface, from the rafters to the floor, and everything in between. All of our floors are being refinished, and we have installed hand-washing stations and sanitizing stations in every gallery. Our space is spotless!”
Personal experience and perspective during this pandemic
“At the beginning of Shelter-in-Place, I noticed a lot of notes up in my neighbors’ windows: ‘hang in there,’ ‘we can do this,’ and kids’ drawings of rainbows and animals. There was a period of time when there was a lot of joyful chalk art on the sidewalks. I felt like our neighborhood was coming together in a new way, which gave me so much heart. We were all seeing and acknowledging each other. Strangers were being kind to each other. Someone set up a community food pantry on the corner where people leave food for others. It is still being used by the community. But as time has gone on, the notes have come down, the chalk has worn off, and we seem to be noticing and acknowledging each other less frequently. Our communities are struggling. Our connection to community is so important, especially now.”
How do you feel this pandemic will affect museums for the long term?
“I worry about the ability of museums to survive the long-term closures. A lot of museums don’t have the benefit of 'rainy day' funds or endowments that can see them through hard times. The American Association of Museums reports that as many as ⅓ of museums in the U.S. may close permanently, and that would be a tremendous tragedy. We all need places to reflect on our history, be inspired by art, or to light that spark of curiosity that can enrich our lives.”
How can/has BART Marketing best support/ed your organization?
“BART has been a fantastic partner to the Exploratorium! We have worked together to provide local schools with free transportation and field trips; thus, removing most barriers to visitation. As a result, thousands of kids, many of whom had never been to a museum before, got to come and spend a day with us. BART has worked hard to provide greater access to so many children and we are grateful for their part in assisting us in fulfilling our mission. BART has also been a fantastic partner in getting the word out about our exhibitions and programs throughout the year. We are very much looking forward to the day when we can once again welcome field trip groups to explore with us!”
The museum doors do remain closed but, as Robyn mentions, there are many digital offerings on the Exploratorium website from making snacks to "Tinkering at Home," and beyond. While it doesn’t replace the hands-on experience inside the walls of the Exploratorium, it keeps the science it offers at our fingertips until they can once again re-open those doors.
Have you experienced the Exploratorium?
Tell us what your scientific fun was like via social media, @SFBARTable #SFBARTable! Keep up with us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter to see all of the best BARTable (virtual) events, places to eat (grab take out from) and have fun (outside) around the Bay. 

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