Ready to tinker?
At San Francisco's Exploratorium, visitors are invited to do just that. In fact, there's a Tinkering Studio where recently kids were busy figuring out how to connect wires to make buzzers work and lights go on and taking apart mechanized stuffed animals to see how they operate. They could also use wire to create mechanized sculptures a la Calder or work with an artist in residence to make their own metal creations.
"This isn't a museum, it's a laboratory where people get together to inspire each other. It isn't like anywhere else," said Tim Humkin, a well-known British engineer, cartoonist and TV personality, who was here as a visiting artist to teach the tinkerers welding — their creations to become part of a huge whimsical metal arch welcoming visitors to the space.
When the Exploratorium opened in 1969, it served as a prototype for what science museums around the world would eventually become — a place to interact with exhibits, not just look at them. And that continues today as the museum tests what will work when it moves to its huge new digs on Piers 15 and 17 on the Embarcadero in 2013, more than doubling its exhibit space to 230,000 square feet. (Fans like my kids will be pleased that the Tactile Dome where people enter a pitch-black environment and must find their way out by touch will be larger too.)
The Tinkering Studio is one way for museum staff to see what works and what doesn't. You are encouraged to leave all of your creations so they become part of the exhibit and inspire the next group of visitors — "changing the experience for the next person," explains the Exploratorium's Mike Petrich, who helps oversee the space and the Learning Studio where museum staff in turn "tinker" with what will become future exhibits, while visitors watch through big windows.
Whether your kids are science geeks, future engineers or artists, or you just want them to have a unique experience, San Francisco's two-dozen museums deliver. The California Museum of Sciences — one of the city's top tourist draws since its move to Golden Gate Park — is the only place in the world to combine a natural history museum, aquarium and planetarium in one building. It's the greenest museum in the world.
Learn a little San Francisco history as you go. Stop in at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum — the city's cable car system is run from the 1907 brick barn. At Boudin at the Wharf see San Francisco's sourdough bread being made while you learn how it is entwined with San Francisco history (gold miners liked the tangy bread so much they became known as sourdoughs) and lore. (There is a fog machine to demonstrate how the climate impacts the starter and the taste of the bread, making it different than sourdough bread from anywhere else in the world.)
The Walt Disney Family Museum tells Walt Disney's own story through interactive displays. With the littlest travelers, head over the Golden Gate Bridge — an adventure in itself — to the Bay Area Discovery Museum just under the bridge. You don't need to spend all day at many of these museums, but you will be showing the kids something they won't see anywhere else. You'll also get them thinking — even about how what we eat impacts the environment. Did you know food is 25 percent of your carbon footprint?
At the California Academy of Science's climate change exhibit, there are plates of all kinds of plastic food (kids love this). You pull a lever at each plate and it turns over and tells you how you can reduce your carbon footprint by making better food choices — fruits (eat what is in season), steak (choose free-range grass-fed beef rather than beef from industrial farms that create a lot of emissions). I picked up a Green Guide that told us how to make better choices to protect our planet's future — from substituting chicken or seafood for beef (industrial farming of livestock is responsible for more carbon pollution than the entire transportation industry) to buying seafood that has been harvested sustainably or choosing local restaurants rather than chains.
Art around the world
The Contemporary Jewish Museum encourages interfaith understanding while the Museum of the African Diaspora showcases African art and culture. Bring kids to Zeum to create their own multimedia projects (I especially loved the clay animation). The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco offers one of the largest such collections, while the de Young Museum features American art and textiles (got a future designer in your gang?). Don't forget the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art either. All these museums have special workshops and programs for families — from storytelling at the Asian Art Museum and free Saturday classes at the de Young to special tours and hands-on projects at the Museum of the African Diaspora, Family Sundays at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and special family gallery tours and drop-in art projects at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.
(If you plan to visit several museums, check out City Pass, which gets you deeply discounted admission to some of the city's top museums, as well as an array of other savings.)
At the Exploratorium's cavernous no-frills space, kids and adults are literally making waves, making a pulley system, making balls "float in the air," making wind, spinning patterns. No one tells them to be quiet.
"We create the experiences," Petrich says, watching the kids in the Tinkering Studio. Then it's up to them to "make sense of it."
"There is not one way to do any project here or approach any exhibit," he added. "The experiences are different for each person."
As they should be.
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