There’s a new place to explore the Bay and it isn’t an aquarium, a boat, or a model. It’s an observatory, a square room perched high in the back corner of a San Francisco pier, where you can look out the window at the Bay or the city, or look into the Bay through a dozen, way-cool, exhibits. Here is a place that deciphers age-old relationships between moon and tides, sun and fog, shore and sea for you, and throws humans into the mix. And the new Bay Observatory in the new Exploratorium, opening April 17, does what the Exploratorium always did best, and now does better: gives you knobs to turn and scopes to squint through and maps to touch and shadows to chase. If there is a place where the frontiers of “interactive” exhibit are pushed, it is here, as always. But this new museum — moved from the historic Palace of Fine Arts to a designer, ultra-energy efficient space on Pier 15 — puts a finer point on it.
“The Palace was a dark hole with no windows, so trying to engage people in the environment didn’t work well there,” says Susan Schwartzenberg, a senior artist at the Exploratorium. “Here we have the Bay on one side and the whole history of the urban shoreline on the other, from sunken Gold Rush ships and bay fill to downtown development, so landscapes fill our windows. All of our Observatory exhibits are set up in relationship to the environment outside.”
On the Bay side, you can watch giant ships lumber into port and also see them on a ship tracker screen at your fingertips — bright green arrows with tails tracing their recent routes. The ship tracker display uses the same technology captains consult on their ship bridges to check their position in relation to other vessels. On a table nearby spread the ridges and bays of the region’s topography, carved in white wood. Turn a knob and suddenly the salinity of the water is projected in yellows and blues across what exhibit developers call a “visualization platform.” “It communicates different aspects of the Bay, like tides or storm events, by projecting image skins on the platform,” says geologist Sebastian Martin, who worked with the Observatory’s team on science content. As we watch yellow water creeps upstream into the Carquinez Strait with a projected tide. “Our team hopes one might look at this and learn about tides, and then look out the window and search for signs of the same thing in the Bay,” he says.
Indeed, the Bay is on the big screen everywhere in this beautiful room, in windows, on table displays, and on a state-of-the-art video wall. Nearby stands a tower of smaller screens revealing data from monitoring instruments in the water below and the air above. They’re tracking everything from greenhouse gases to water quality and turbidity around the Observatory. “We’re a wired pier,” says Ron Hipschman, a selfproclaimed “geek” physicist. “We have more instrumentation here than most meteorologists have, and we’re offering our location for science.” And science has taken them up on the offer. The Observatory is fast becoming a station for a number of Bay and ocean monitoring networks. Indeed, right off the inner pier, a red and white buoy owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will soon measure ocean acidification, and another pier device bounces high frequency radio waves off the water surface as part of a study of currents by San Francisco State’s Romberg Tiburon Center. Kids and adults visiting the Observatory can see how scientists collect the field information they need to protect Bay health and commerce. “We’re not a research entity, but we can provide a location, power, and maintenance for instruments collecting raw data,” says Hipschman. The Observatory is even testing hydrocarbon levels in the water as spilled oil and fuel runs off city surfaces into the Bay. “Visitors can see on screen what happens after the first rain, and the second rain, and the third rain,” he says.
The Observatory also presents what creator Bryce Johnson, calls a “library of mud” — two clear tubes of sediments from the bay bottom laid on their side for public perusal. One “core” comes from the South Bay, and one from the North, and each reveals layers and layers of Bay history, from the white chips of broken oyster shells and the gold grains of sandy deposits to mining debris and the “fines” of our soupy, sticky, gray-green Bay mud. “Our mud library shows just how fast, and how slow, the landscape can evolve, and how humans have been part of that change over time,” says Johnson.
These are just a few of the waycool exhibits in the new Observatory that are giving visitors a new window into the local environment, and shoreline history. You can see the sun’s movement through an “oculus” and identify buildings on the Embarcadero waterfront through an “alidade.” You can sit on a bench outside and watch solar shadows, or go on to the Life Sciences room for a close look at brine shrimp in a tank of salt water. There’s the upended, 13- foot tall, root mass of a 330-year old Douglas fir and geysers that spume up into rafters. There is also of course the giant pier itself – the Observatory is just the eastern tip of an iceberg sparkling with Exploratorium exhibits invented through unique collaborations among local scientists, historians, artists and, of course, geeks.
This writer was struck by how much thought has gone into these spaces, how much passion into the idea of making physics, engineering, environment, light, even life itself, touchable, understandable. This is a place where all that is so obvious and exaggerated about contemporary American culture melts away, and we remember the subtleties of nature, and how we cannot help but be drawn into an intimacy with the landscapes we live in. As Schwartzenberg puts it: “Our Observatory sits in a dramatic landscape with a rich human and natural history. We want to bring all the global changes in our environment home, and engage people in what’s happening here and now.”