Saturday, August 23, 2008

Please touch the exhibits

One of the best things to do in San Francisco, whether you're a child or not, is to visit the Exploratorium. It is the most interesting science museum I've ever seen, perhaps because it subverts the traditional idea of a museum. It's more like a playground combined with an art studio and a workshop where you're allowed to use all the tools. Nothing says "don't touch."

To quote the Exploratorium's Web site, the place is "a collage of hundreds of interactive exhibits in the areas of science, art, and human perception."

You can watch a museum staffer dissect a cow's eye or fertilize sea-urchin eggs. Or draw a picture using a fixed marker pen and a three-foot square pad of paper on a pendulum tray.

Once the boys and I were fascinated by a time-lapse movie showing how the body of a dead bird decays. On this visit, we were spent a lot of time peering under the hood of a car and learning how mechanics diagnose mechanical problems by their sounds.

This playspace invited us to "stack the stars" and figure out how to best arrange them so that there was hardly any space in between. The best part, according to C, was the "tunnels" between the structure and the floor. I had to take his word on that, not being small enough to wriggle through.

(If anyone knows what this shape is called, please comment! I forgot the term. It looks like this stellated dodecahedron.)

The box of magnetic black sand always draws a crowd. It feels almost like stroking a smooth furry animal.

The "Mind" portion of the museum explores how we think and feel. Stand in the middle of a bullseye and look up as directed, and you'll see that a grand piano is hoisted directly overhead, hanging by a single cable. How do you feel about this? Maybe you don't care. Or maybe you feel a little strange, like a target, even though your rational mind knows that you're perfectly safe.

I love watching people approach this exhibit's unusual water fountain. It works as you'd expect, but the water spout is attached to a toilet. The display assures you that this is a brand-new fixture, never used for its apparent purpose. Will you drink from it? (I make a point of doing so whenever I walk by, and every time it requires a tiny bit of mental effort.)

Since you're going to be here for a long visit, it's good to know that you can have a tasty meal or snack. If a young companion demands PB&J or pizza, you can get those. But I enjoyed spicy roasted chicken served with wild rice pilaf and an organic mixed greens salad with a wonderful shiitake-mushroom vinaigrette. And a Haagen-Dazs ice-cream chaser.

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