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The Wonder Piers

The old Exploratorium was well-meaning and beloved. But it was also dowdy and hidden away. Now, it’s anything but.

"Visualizing the Bay" merges old-fashioned cartography with 21st century analytics to reshape how we see the Bay Area.

Fog art by Tokyo-based Fujiko Nakaya.

"Rickshaw Obscura" gives you a new angle on the city skyline.

The remains of a majestic 330 year old fir tree felled by a storm, on display in "Tree Experience."

 "Team Pac-Man," the West Gallery's explortation of resource deployment and social psychology via a coop version of the classic game.

As an antidote to such inattention, the gallery in the observatory is filled with exhibits designed to help visitors get a deeper sense of the bay and the surrounding land. The simplest among these are maps from different eras. There’s one from the 1800s that shows San Francisco when its shoreline extended no farther than where the Transamerica Pyramid is now. There’s one from 1905 that shows how famous urban designer Daniel Burnham dreamed of developing San Francisco: A 4,764-acre park starts at Twin Peaks and doesn’t stop until it hits the Pacific Ocean. “People have been afraid to touch them because they think they’re too nice,” says senior project manager Kristina Larsen. But they are there to be touched, exotic artifacts from a world before maps required batteries.

The most impressive exhibit in the gallery at the moment is a little more technologically advanced. It’s a map, too, but a map for the 21st century. Called “Visualizing the Bay,” it’s basically a topographical map that staffers have been developing for seven years now. It was carved from two solid blocks of maple and then finished with a subtle coat of whitewash. A beautiful piece of work, remarkably detailed and painstakingly rendered, it’s an absolute triumph of artisanal America—except that no bearded Appalachian woodworkers were involved in the process.

Instead, the map was carved via a computerized router using satellite data from U.S. Geological Survey digital elevation models. The result approximates, in three-dimensional form, the entire Bay Area, including the floor of the bay. “When you touch it, you can feel very subtle things,” says scientific content developer Sebastian Martin. “Here, for example, is a channel. And over here, where the Golden Gate is, you can feel that it’s the deepest part of the bay.”

What make this topographical map different are the computer and the projector system that work with it. Click a few buttons and twist a few dials on the control panel, and information populates the blank terrain. Today, Eric Fischer, an artist- in-residence at the Exploratorium, has brought several data sets to play with. The first uses material gleaned from Twitter that shows where visitors to the Bay Area tend to congregate compared to where locals go. Another uses U.S. Census data to show population densities by age. “If you’re nine years old and you want to see where the other nine-year-olds are, you can,” Fischer explains.

In the end, the possibilities are limitless—whatever information staffers can collect, they can depict. At one point, Martin displays a data set showing every earthquake that has occurred in the region since 1973. Another set, from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab, shows fog rolling over the hills of the Marin Headlands in mesmerizing fashion.

Each of these depictions alone is interesting, but ultimately, it’s the interplay of all the model’s elements that makes it so engaging. It’s an emphatically tangible object, a solid and unchanging block of maple, and at the same time, it’s infinitely mutable. It’s a teaching tool with a very specific domain, but it’s also a meditation on the passage of time, the way things change radically and yet not at all. All that action (earthquakes! suburban real estate booms! fog!) gets depicted on the model, but when you look outside the window, the very real topography looks nearly as fixed as a map.

Now, the same thing is happening at the Exploratorium. It’s undergoing a major metamorphosis, but only to become more and more itself. “This much change all at once can be very scary for an institution,” says Lani. “But one thing we cannot afford to be is afraid. You don’t generally innovate on your heels. You innovate on your toes.”

The new Exploratorium opens to the public April 17. Go to Exploratorium.edu for details.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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