San Francisco : Exploratorium

A quiet morning with the novelty of carrot cake, to me at the time a hippy form of food never seen in the UK but now ubiquitous at your local coffee shop. In the early afternoon I mosey on over to the Palace of Fine Arts, a slight misnomer since it then housed a fabulous interactive museum, the Exploratorium. The building itself is impressive, curving around an artificial lagoon in a distressed Greek style, with many columns and a large cupola. Inside it is quite different, with a panoply of exhibits requiring some input to demonstrate a scientific fact, an optical illusion, the vagaries of perception or a wonder of nature. The Exploratorium was founded by Frank Oppenheimer in 1969. He was the brother of the atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer and had been blacklisted as a Communist from 1949 to 1957. As a child I had come across some fascinating interactive exhibits in the basement of the Science Museum in London, which had helped inspire Oppenheimer. Here in San Francisco the exhibits were on a different scale and filled the large warehouse space with all the squeaks, whooshes and gurgling of live experiments, accompanied by the questions, shouts and laughter of the participants. Uniquely there were many exhibits built by in-house artists, so everything looked different and was great fun, if not always strictly scientific. There were many open workshops where you could participate in the various experiments being built or tested. This palace of wonders became a template for modern science museums the world over and has proven to be immensely popular with both the public and educators. I loved it and went back there with my children in the 90s. In 2013 the Exploratorium moved to new premises at Pier 15 in San Francisco.

The Exploratorium, last day at Palace of Fine Arts 2013. Photo by Kevin Warnock.

In the UK in 1976 there were very few coffee shops and none with chairs outside as seen in continental Europe, apparently it rained too much then for outdoor seating. In San Francisco each little district had a a selection of cafes and shops, with their own unique calling card. They were close enough to walk between and reflected the local ambience, which may be gay, vegetarian, druggy, hipster or anything in between. There were very few chain stores, each place had a defined character and there were many coffee shops and bakeries where you could sit outside and watch the world go by. Hence it was a charming place to walk around, like a series of linked villages, and so it was that we went to The Owl and Monkey Cafe, a few streets up from where I was staying. Here we saw a singer-songwriter duo called Horizon, passing a hat around for tips. We drank a few refreshing beers. We always drank beer, wine was for posh people and foreigners while cocktails were for rich people. Spirits were dangerous and too small. Following the post-pub English tradition we went further up the street to the Bangkok Express for a Thai meal, a relaxed evening.