As far as museum directors go, Frank Oppenheimer was an unlikely figure. A slight man with a shock of gray hair around a bald pate, he was an accomplished nuclear physicist who had worked as a cattle rancher after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. (He’d been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s.) As a boy he studied painting; he was also a proficient flutist. The institution Oppenheimer oversaw, from the time he founded it in 1969 to his death from lung cancer in 1985, was itself an unusual one: San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a space that redefined the concept of the science center.
Instead of presenting musty exhibitions about the solar system and the earth’s crust, the Exploratorium allowed art and science to effortlessly mingle and collide. In addition to showcasing hands-on installations related to resonance, temperature, and sound, it operated as a vital laboratory for visual artists in San Francisco, displaying art in its halls and supporting an artists-in-residence program that continues to this day. One of its earliest art projects, from 1975, a luminous projection of refracted light by Bob Miller, titled Sun Painting, was even funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. In the 1970s, the Exploratorium “was a place where crazy experiments took place,” says Marina McDougall, a curator at the museum who was recently named director of the institution’s newly launched Center for Art & Inquiry. “This was a period when artists were looking for alternative venues. It was all about countercultural questioning.”
Since its low-profile debut back in the ’60s, the Exploratorium had been housed inside the old Palace of Fine Arts, an exhibition hall from the 1915 World’s Fair, on the eastern edge of the Presidio. But this April, the institution will move to a new, 330,000-square-foot home on San Francisco’s tourist-friendly Embarcadero waterfront. The $220 million facility, located on Pier 15, is slated to contain various galleries, nearly 600 permanent and rotating exhibits, and a 200-seat performance venue, all surrounded by one-and-a-half acres of outdoor space.
The high-tech new setting will represent a shift for a museum known for its eccentricity. Early displays were often crafted out of simple materials, such as two-by-fours, mirrors, and paper-towel tubes, at the in-house workshop—many by Oppenheimer himself, who could frequently be found hunched over a lathe, a cigarette dangling from his lips. But the new structure will remain true to the Exploratorium’s interdisciplinary roots: its many exhibitions—which cover subjects as diverse as plankton and light—will include more than 40 works of art, among them a permanent installation of Miller’s Sun Painting.
Douglas Hollis is a San Francisco–based artist who began working with the Exploratorium in the mid-’70s, and whose public works have appeared in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. “There was this general sense of exploration in the San Francisco arts scene at the time—very uncorporate and uncommercial,” he recalls. “The Exploratorium was part of that universe because of Frank’s initial genius in saying, ‘This is not a science museum. It’s a place of human perception.’”
While Hollis was an artist-in-residence at the Exploratorium between 1975 and 1976, he designed an Aeolian harp for the roof. The piece, which has been part of the museum’s program for more than three decades, originally stood over the Palace’s north end, transmitting its sounds to the main entrance. But it has now been retooled, and it is one of several long-running Exploratorium artworks to be transported to the new space. There, installed on a pedestrian bridge that connects Pier 15 to the neighboring pier, its harmonics will be transmitted to a lookout that provides sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay.
The new displays will also contain works by younger contemporary artists, including Los Angeles sound-art duo Lucky Dragons, who will serve as artists-in-residence. Pittsburgh-based artist and composer Golan Levin will contribute an audiovisual installation that employs everyday objects to produce and play a musical score. And, in the observatory, the San Francisco-based Amy Balkin, who has long explored environmental issues in her work (most recently at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany), will produce a detailed guide to the earth’s atmosphere. Rather than offering standard-issue definitions of the gaseous layer cake that separates our planet from space, her chart explores the ways in which humans have historically used and occupied it—from atomic tests conducted in the troposphere to the heaps of space junk that pollute the exosphere.
“The atmosphere is a political space,” Balkin says. “You can’t talk about the science without addressing the politics—especially right now, in light of climate change and other phenomena.”
Works like this are a radical departure from the types of installations shown at many science centers. Balkin, who is originally from Illinois, remembers visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and seeing many exhibitions about coal mining. “There was a lot of coal mining in Illinois,” she says, “and it was a museum of science and industry. But it makes you think, Who is making these narratives about science? They’re never depoliticized.”
The Exploratorium will continue to support this sort of challenging inquiry through its new Center for Art & Inquiry. “The purpose is to create a catalyst and mechanism for orchestrating arts across the museum and developing special projects in the larger art field,” explains McDougall, who is overseeing the initiative. As part of that process, the museum has tapped such guest curators as Henry Urbach, director of the Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut, and Nato Thompson, chief curator at New York’s Creative Time.
Urbach, in fact, has helped realize a special project with Tokyo artist Fujiko Nakaya, who is celebrated for sculptures that imitate fog. In 1998, she created a temporary fog installation for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and in 2002 she worked with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro on the Blur Building, an iconic structure at that year’s Swiss Expo that consisted of a platform hovering over Lake Neuchâtel, shrouded in man-made clouds. Nakaya’s new fog sculpture for the Exploratorium will be suspended over a pedestrian bridge off the pier. It is set to debut in April, with the museum’s reopening. “On calm days, fog will bundle on the bridge and gently flow along the canal onto the ocean,” she says. “With a strong wind, it will hoist upward into the sky like a dragon. On humid days, it floats over the water and lingers in tufts. Its ever-changing form is the probe, in real time, of its immediate environment.” The piece will also serve as a nod to San Francisco—a city known for its abundant and unrelenting mists.
Nakaya says that fog often gets a bad name. Though it obscures views, slows traffic, and can feel ominous at times, it will be seen differently by the public as a result of her installation, the artist hopes. “More than a thousand years ago in Japan, the ancients imagined fog as the breathing of the atmosphere,” the artist explains. And as McDougall points out, in a city where fog is an inconvenient norm, “it will make visible what is normally invisible.”
Ultimately, like so many works at the Exploratorium, Nakaya’s installation is part artwork, part scientific experiment—a cross-disciplinary tool for analyzing and understanding the natural world. And that’s just the sort of thing that Oppenheimer would have found inspiring.
Carolina A. Miranda is a freelance writer in New York and a regular contributor to WNYC. She blogs at C-Monster.net.