Future Reflections         Fall 2009

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TOUCH, PICK UP, AND TINKER

From the Editor: This article is part of a new series in Future Reflections that highlights blind-friendly museums, historical sites, and other places to visit.  If you would like to write about a place your blind child or student has enjoyed, please contact the editor at <dkent5817@worldnet.att.net>.

An interactive wood machine created by artist Bernie Ludbell. A little girl straddles the machine and holds handles as if she were riding a bike. A man beside her reaches up, touching a circular structure overhead. (Copyright the Exploratorium, <www.exploratorium.edu> Photo Credit, Amy Snyder.)Exploratorium: The Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception
3601 Lyon St.
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 561-0360
Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 AM to 5 PM

All too often, blind children experience museums as rows of blank glass cases or a phalanx of wooden barricades. Even when objects stand invitingly out in the open, some zealous security guard is likely to swoop down with the ringing edict, "Don't touch!" San Francisco's Exploratorium embraces a refreshingly different approach. Its mission statement explains that visitors are welcome to "touch, pick up, and tinker with hundreds of exhibits."

The Exploratorium was founded in 1969 by Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, a physicist who believed that learning occurs best through direct experience. Housed in the Palace of Fine Arts and several adjacent buildings, the Exploratorium contains more than four hundred hands-on exhibits. Exhibits allow visitors to explore aspects of physics, perception, the life sciences, and much more.

The laws of physics come to life in intriguing ways. Sift iron filings through tiny holes in a curved pipe. By directing the flow you can form bridges, canyons, and delicate spires. Balance a ball atop a rising jet of air. Discover how sound is conducted when you talk against a giant balloon. Find out what happens when you divert the flow of water with boards and stones. Experiment with magnets, pendulums, and interlocking gears. Build a structure with tessellated decahedrons. Don't know what those are? Well, they have lots of sides, and you can fit them together in amazing ways!

A series of exhibits on the human mind teaches visitors about the senses. You can check your hearing and challenge yourself to sort through a medley of conversations that bombard you through a headset. Test the lightness of your tread--can you walk across a crunchy patch of gravel without making a sound? Learn about patterns of communication as you listen to a series of taped conversations between couples trying to resolve conflicts.

A unique feature of the Exploratorium is the Tactile Dome, a maze that visitors navigate in pitch darkness. Hanging from the walls and ceiling are a host of objects that can be identified by touch. Though blind visitors may be rather unimpressed, sighted friends and family may enjoy and learn from the experience. Tours of the Tactile Dome require advance reservations.

Whatever your age or background, the Exploratorium will spark your curiosity and your sense of wonder. Kids and adults can easily spend hours roving from one exhibit to another, then returning to their favorites for another try. In the summer of 2010 the museum plans to open a new section, the Geometry Playground. Whatever it is, it's bound to be interesting!

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