50 years ago the Exploratorium opened, a first of its kind museum aimed at teaching science to kids and teens with a 100% hands-on approach to learning. Six years ago the museum relocated from their original Palace of Fine Arts to a new space at Pier 15, adding the new 21 and over “After Dark” series on Thursday evenings.
If there’s one thing both kids and tipsy adults have in common, it’s a tendency to break stuff. Which makes it all the more impressive that many of the exhibits I remember seeing at the Exploratorium as a kid are not only still there, but still work today.
The current Curious Contraptions special exhibit of hand made automatons doesn’t quite have the same hands-on appeal, but it still feels like a natural fit for the Exploratorium, filling the gray area where science meets art.
These automatons are whimsical hand made mechanical contraptions that bring a small scene of some kind to life. Some are powered by electric motors, others need to be cranked by hand. Most are small, not much larger than a shoe box.
As you can see in the video at the top of the post these are all relatively new automatons, built in the last 60 years or so. That surprised me the most; I tend to think of cuckoo clocks or the 19th century coin operated dioramas like you’d find at Musée Mécanique.
Compared to their predecessors the artists building automatons today aren’t as interested in hiding the mechanics in a cabinet, and feature more abstract scenes. What hasn’t changed is the humor — there’s something inherently silly about a little contraption driven by a crank where a more serious story wouldn’t fit the medium. If these were books they’d be pop-up books, not novels.
The largest and in many ways most impressive automaton is the Exploratory Lunacycle from British cartoonist Rowland Emett, featured at the end of the above video. It’s like a psychedelic Jules Verne story brought to life.
Although it wasn’t technically part of the exhibit, I couldn’t help but to notice the Exploratorium’s transparent pinball machine was located nearby, itself an automaton of sorts with all the guts exposed.
Curious Contraptions runs through January 26th.