“Open your eyes and then, open your eyes again”

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The Exploratorium’s Observatory: my favourite part of the whole museum.

Why? Perhaps I’m biased since there are a lot of exhibits about landscape, weather, climatology and a giant screen that I can control! But mostly it is because I love the space itself. Although it is well used it does not get as much footfall as the rest of the museum. It is located at towards the end of the pier and if, as a visitor, you work your way from the front entrance towards the back, then you’re going to be all exibit-ed out (or would run out of time) by the time you got there. It’s so easy to see why you can’t do the whole Exploratorium in one day (the pier is 1/4km long from end to end!). It’s also easy to miss if you are so focused on the ‘main’ galleries (1 to 4) along the length of building.

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Friday just gone I delivered the Explainer training on weather and climate. One of the Explainers had put some of that new knowledge to excellent use with their epic whiteboard pen skills! Wish I could do this on my whiteboard…!

However, from observing and speaking to visitors they like the open space and relative calm too. So for those who have missed it or can’t come see for themselves, let me take you on a virtual tour…

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A plan of the Observatory space and its exhibits

The large floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides of the Observatory give a stunning panoramic of San Francisco Bay on one side, and the San Francisco skyline on the other. The exhibits features here make much use of these windows, and so being true to the Observatory’s tagline of ‘observing landscapes’. I’ve found myself staring out of these windows just as frequently as playing with the exhibits or the hyperwall.

First, looking land-ward towards the city…

The timelapse above shows the view from these windows, looking south-west. The unmistakable Transamerica Pyramid really defines this view, but equally so does Telegraph Hill, on which Coit Tower sits on top (just out of view to the right of the video). People are busy exploring the outdoor exhibits, and you can see the traffic going by on the Embarcadero.

The exhibits that make use of this view get visitors to explore the urban landscape in front of them in a range of different ways. But visitors don’t just explore the present, the exhibits allow them to explore the past too (particularly the 19th century).

The combination of lo-tech and hi-tech exhibits focuses the eyes and help you to see what our eyes cannot. I love playing around with this one:

Attached to the front of the building, where Pier 15 meets the Embarcadero promenade, is an infra-red camera. The interactive digital display allows you to see the urban heat effect, a major human influence on an area’s microclimate (San Francisco is quite notorious to its locals for its microclimate variability, as the promotion of this app and this humourous and delightful twitter feed showcasing San Francisco’s fog testifies). I like to tap on the road and see the mini graph’s temperature reading go up and down as a car passes through.

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Sunset is a great time to be in the Observatory. As the sun disappears behind Telegraph Hill and starts to give everything an yellow-orange glow, the lights in the building respond with yellow lights of their own.

Pivoting 180º more-or-less on the spot and the Observatory exhibit floor is a patchwork of carefully placed exhibits of all shapes, sizes, complexity and technology. A sliding door leads outside, where exhibits focus on the sun. I’ve been asked a number of times where people can go outside and eat their lunch. I always suggest that space.

The gallery is very dynamic. The exhibits usually centered in the room are on wheels, so they can be moved out of the way for events (I’ll come back to that later). Paper, models (digital and static), artifacts and interactive displays form a mosaic of information about the Bay Area.

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The Wired Pier Environmental Field Station is one of the interactive exhibits, providing real-time and historical data for the weather and bay conditions around the Exploratorium. The digital graph display in my opinion is itself of a work of art.

If I could change one thing about it, however, and that would be the option to toggle the seasonal (multicolored plots), so you can either just have the white line (current data), or display one or more season. This way you can differentiate a little clearer between the seasons. Underneath the weather data are plots from the water including salinity, water temperature and CO2.

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The Wired Pier explorer terminal, where you can look at historic weather and water data.

All the Wired Pier data can be explored online here. It is currently in a beta stage of testing and a bit buggy but still worth a look; and I’m sure that they would appreciate any feedback for improvements!

And then, centre-stage, is the hyperwall! It’s Ron Hipschman’s* pride and joy; I often find him working on the wall or just playing around with the visualisations. He’s currently excited (and determined) to get fantastic imagery from NOAA’s new GOES-East satellite up on there.

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Ron, Mary Miller and I looking at the new imagery from NOAA’s GOES-East satellite. Ron uses his contacts at NOAA to obtain specific imagery from which he uses computer scripts to fit and animate them on to the hyperwall.
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I’ve been enjoying using the hyperwall to entertain visitors. Having conversations with people I can find something on the wall that they would like to explore and we discuss what we see together. Credit: Lisa Strong

*Side-note: I realised that I actually ‘met’ Ron almost 10 years ago during a webcast hosted by the Exploratorium. Ron was in Antarctica teaming up with scientists at the South Pole to communicate the work they were doing through the Exploratorium’s ‘Ice Stories’ project. Watch this video about the Ice Cube neutrino telescope! You’ll see a ‘guest’ appearance from a certain extra-curricular club from a certain high-school led by a certain teacher! 😉 

Now, let’s look towards San Francisco’s iconic bay:

This is my favourite timelapse that I took to showcase the Observatory. Go ahead and play it several times over; look at different parts of it, and you’ll see what I mean! (I geek out every time I see that current and the sail boats!) Also, I haven’t yet managed to photograph one, but if you are patient enough you’ll spot sea lions bobbing up and down in the water (although, as cute as that seems, sea lions are getting a bad rap in the media at the moment!)

The exhibits on this side of the Observatory as you would guess make full use of this splendid view. They have visitors explore the tides and the shipping for instance. They also sport a couple of telescopes and a pair of binoculars for visitors to scan across the bay to the other side.

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Crafted with a lot of thought and attention is this tangible tidal chart. Whoever thought this up was a genius!

I haven’t showcased every single exhibit that the Observatory offers, nor have I gone into any detail about what each can tell visitors. But hopefully I’ve given you a sense of what can be explored here.

To end, I’ll go back to what I said earlier about the Observatory being a dynamic space. My previous blog entry summarised one of the many events that are hosted in the Observatory (check back there where I talk about how the space is manipulated for such an event).

So if you happen to be reading this and have the chance to visit the Exploratorium, do make it up to the Observatory. You will be pleased with not just the exhibits there, but the setting that they are placed in. And if you come within the next 6 weeks, this is probably where you’ll find me hanging out. Come say hi and let’s explore together! 🙂


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