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Bay Area Museums

I discuss my trip to the museums of the Bay Area for SF/SF #125.

Published in Science Fiction/San Francisco #125 (ed. Jean Martin, España Sheriff and Tom Becker)

I recently came to the Bay Area and was given a tour of some fascinating places by España, the editor of this fine fanzine. As a result I was asked whether I would write an article on the museums and other centres of culture that I visited. I jumped at the chance to inflict more of my writing on you, and so this article was born. My trip to San Francisco included my introduction to the California Academy of Sciences, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, an art gallery called Varnish and the Computer History Museum – I am going to tackle them in chronological order, and so this article begins with España and I heading to Golden Gate Park.

Our jaunt to the California Academy of Sciences took place on a Thursday evening, because Thursdays are when NightLife happens, and NightLife is amazing. Imagine the brilliance and fascination contained within the only building in the world to house an aquarium, a planetarium and a rainforest; then imagine that with music, alcohol and a strict 21+ policy and you have the idea perfectly. Each night has a theme around which the events revolve; the night we went it was ‘SF Streets’ and there were exhibitions of street art and a DJ playing some funky mashups (which was a good foreshadowing to my visit to the DNA Lounge later in the week; but that lies rather beyond the purview of this piece).

The entrance of the Academy of Sciences
The entrance of the Academy of Sciences

One thing I must say before I go any further is that the free iPhone app (which, regrettably, is not yet available for Android or WP7 users) offered by the museum is amazing. It does everything I wanted it to do. It lets you check into different areas of the museum (which, handily, also tells you what there is to see) and also offers more information about stuff that might pique your interest. If you’re going, I really do advise you download and use the app as you go around; it certainly added to my experience! Another thing that added to the experience was the array of cocktail bars – each bar had a unique (and not badly priced) cocktail as well as a range of spirits and mixers. If you’re a completist, like me (or an alcoholic, like España) you can complete the set of the specials!

The entire museum is open, with a couple of caveats; the number of planetarium shows is limited (and there is often more than one show during the night) so if you want to go, make getting a ticket a priority and do it before you do anything else. You’ll be able to specify what time you want to see the relevant show, and that lets you plan the rest of your evening around that point. Alongside the planetarium shows is a timetable of other things going on throughout the night (talks and suchlike) – it might be handy to glance at this before tying yourself down to a specific showtime. It’s also worth noting that the rainforest closes down at 8pm, so bear that in mind if that looks like something you want to do.

The rainforest is spectacular, although some of the butterflies came a little closer to us than I would necessarily have liked (the big ones are a lot less cute than the little ones!). The birds flying around, the fish and lizards dotted in enclosures throughout, and the water life swimming in the faux river below you are all sights to behold and the juxtaposition of the three really helps lend the animals you see a context that you often don’t quite get at zoos, aquariums or aviaries. This is reinforced by the way in which you progress through the rainforest – you start at the bottom and climb up three levels, with different animals on each according to how high you are. The butterflies go from being things fluttering in the distance above you to being things that are nearly landing on you as they swoop past, and the water creatures go from right there to beautiful swimming shapes seen from above.

The aquarium at the Academy of Sciences
The aquarium at the Academy of Sciences

Of course, when you reach the top of the rainforest, you have to come back down, but this is handled for you in the form of a lift that takes you from the top reaches of the dome you’ve walked through and takes you down into the aquarium, filled with water and wonder. Some of the creatures down there are amazing – the jellyfish are just one example of that, illuminated in an array of different and bright colours. The aforementioned river is visible from the bottom, when you’re on the lower level, via a transparent tunnel and various amazing viewing stations; our favourite animal in there was the turtle and it was amazing to see it swim by, right next to the glass.

Jellyfish at the Academy of Sciences
Jellyfish at the Academy of Sciences

There’s a huge variety of stuff to see in the aquarium and it took us until our planetarium show to wander around to our hearts’ content. However, we didn’t want to miss the planetarium so we went to see it. It was an interesting show, that combined the science of how cells are structured with information on the structure of the universe itself: from the very small to the very large. The academy very clearly puts a lot of pride into its productions and they were very well made indeed.

At the mid-point of the show, the hostess took the microphone and talked a little about recent science in the areas being discussed. This was incredibly impressive since she talked about exoplanets and the 700th confirmed discovery of an exoplanet, which had occurred only weeks before the talk – clearly the information in the shows is kept very recent! I’ve never been in a planetarium show that had a segment for more recent science in that way, and I thought it worked very well indeed – I shall have to tell a friend who works at the UK’s National Space Centre, clearly.

For the denouement of the evening, we decided to quickly catch some things we hadn’t yet seen in the time we had before the museum closed. This involved getting another cocktail (naturally) and then climbing the stairs up to the museum’s living roof, which is totally interesting in its own right. However, drinking cocktails in the cool night air with the stars all around was incredibly romantic, and for this reason I highly, highly recommend NightLife if you’re looking for a slightly quirky and unconventional location for a date. There was a telescope pointed at Jupiter through which the planet and all four Galilean moons were visible, and España and I were thrilled to be able to see them. All in all, it was a completely magical night.

The California Academy of Sciences is open 9:30am – 5pm (11am – 5pm on Sundays) and opens again for NightLife between 6pm and 10pm on Thursdays. Their iOS apps are available through their website at and the Pocket Penguins app is also offered on Android. Entry is $29.95 for adults and subject to a $5 charge if you go at a peak period (although tickets purchased online are not subject to that charge and can be used at any time). Tickets to NightLife are $12, which is significantly cheaper, doesn’t require taking the day off work, and means you can buy alcohol (no guesses as to which I think is the better deal). You will need ID to prove you are over 21, naturally. The theme for February 2nd is ‘Bourbon & Bull’, whereas February 9th sees ‘Animal Attraction’ – see their website for more details.

Now we move onto the Contemporary Jewish Museum and their exhibition on Ehrich Weiss. Weiss is better known to millions of people as Harry Houdini, and the collection was entitled Houdini: Art and Magic. The pieces on display describe the magic he performed and his life through a number of artefacts from his life. There were several such things, including props he used and diaries he kept, but the twist of the exhibition was the other pieces being displayed; namely, a series of pieces of artwork inspired by the man. This lent the exhibition a real sense of context (and almost interactivity) which really served to illustrate the impact he had – not only on his fellow magicians, but on the rest of the world.

I find magic fascinating as a form of entertainment. I loved the Magic Castle in Los Angeles and have flirted with performing magic myself, on occasion (not always entirely successfully!). As a result, I found the exhibition an illuminating look at a man who basically set the stage for many of the contemporary magicians working today. The sense of context was reinforced by a series of videos around the installation – there were clips from films based on Houdini’s life playing on a large screen, and then later in the exhibition another screen showing interviews with and tricks by magicians inspired by Houdini (amongst which were David Blaine and Penn and Teller, both of whom have been heavily affected by the man).

Another string to Houdini’s bow, alongside his magic and public performances, was his scepticism. He loved to debunk supernaturalism and spiritualism (another area in which Penn and Teller have clearly followed his lead, with programmes such as Bullshit!). One very interesting anecdote told of his clashes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife, who attempted to hold a séance for him.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is open 11am – 5pm, except for Thursdays, on which it opens 1pm – 8pm. It is closed on Wednesdays, however, and can also shut depending on Jewish holidays. Admission is $12 (free on the first Tuesday of each month) and the website is if you want to find out more. Houdini: Art & Magic ran until January 16th, 2012; if you want to see it you can head to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (in Wisconsin) between February 11th and May 13th. Alternatively, if that’s a bit too far away for your tastes, you could visit and follow the link to download the iOS app for $0.99 (no Android/WP7 app at the time of writing).

Varnish is an art gallery in San Francisco that we visited on the same day. España mentioned that our visit occurred in conjunction with the Houdini exhibition in SF/SF #124, and there’s not much to add that she didn’t say much better than I could. Check her article out!

España extending a hand to a piece of art reminiscent of a shrunken cat's head on the wall at an art gallery.
España indicates some of the art at Varnish

Last, but certainly not least, is the Computer History Museum. This is a museum that charts developments in computing from the very earliest computers (including a working Difference Engine) right through to the Internet age. It’s a fascinating place, full of history and shiny gadgets, but the real fannish link is the curator who was at the centre of our trip – the one and only Christopher J. Garcia!

We arrived at the Caltrain station and caught the bus from there to the museum, taking us along roads winding between Google buildings until we reached our stop. We jumped off the bus and I started to ask where the museum was when I saw it, right next to where we had gotten off. It’s an impressive building from the outside and the walk to the entrance is similarly striking, culminating in entry to a rather grand entrance hall (with a bar, which is the best way to enhance any such space). The first thing one sees is the ticket desk; the second, Christopher J. Garcia sitting cross legged behind the ticket desk typing quickly on his MacBook.

We exclaimed as we saw him, and he exclaimed in return, jumping up and getting us complimentary entry, which was really lovely. The first challenge was putting on my little metal entrance badge – it was one of those with a tag that wraps around a draw string or the hem of a shirt, and I’d never seen one before. With that challenge surmounted, we entered the main exhibition, which is entitled Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.

One of the things I like about this main exhibition is the narrative it presents of the evolution of computing, presented chronologically. As a result, it starts from the very first computers, also known as abaci. I had never actually used an abacus before being shown how to by Chris; they are very elegant, and I can see how they could have been used to achieve great things. Eventually, the exhibition moves beyond the abacus and to machines that required slightly more complexity to create. One example of early machines is IBM’s entry into computing with the tabulating machines it sold prior to World War 2, eventually leading (through things such as missile guidance systems and an Enigma machine) to the 1950s.

The computers of the 50s are interesting because they look like things right out of science fiction – indeed, España was incited to squee over the Univac, a computer made in 1951 which was, for a time, a name synonymous with computer. As one reaches the 1960s, the IBM System/360 is a beautiful powder blue creation, and looks just like the computers from Thunderbirds (which makes sense given they were first introduced a mere year apart). The 1970s bring the Cray supercomputer, which still looks futuristic and evokes SF imagery over thirty years later.

Me wearing a red t-shirt standing in front of a Cray supercomputer
Me standing in front of the Cray supercomputer

As the exhibition leaves the 1970s behind, the narrative becomes a little less chronological and starts to expand into different technologies grouped together. So, from a strict progression of time to collections dedicated to such things as the minicomputer (or, as we call it today, ‘the computer’). This area of the museum featured what must be a contender for ‘most misogynistic computer ever designed’ – the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, advertised with the tagline “if she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute”. This was followed by robots, which were amazing, and the AARON Paint System, a computer that produces artwork designed by Harold Cohen. The issue of whether the artist is the machine or the designer of the machine is an interesting one, and is explored in a video playing nearby.

The segment featuring the Apple I (signed by Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak) came after that. This was a fascinating look at the rise of the home computer, and was positioned close to the exhibits on computer games and videogames – the Macintosh was released the year before the Nintendo Entertainment System – and so I fawned over the ancient Apple products before playing Chris at a videogame (he thrashed me soundly and completely). I was also happy that there was a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on display with original packaging (of course, if you just want to play it, you can do so on the BBC website).

Chris had to leave at that point so he rushed us through to the Difference Engine, which is presented separately from other exhibits (for obvious reasons). It is very shiny and exactly what I expected; you really do feel that you’re in the presence of something special. It’s next to a separate exhibition about computing in chess, which was similarly very interesting. We rounded out our trip by sneaking back into Revolution and looking at the last parts, focusing on networking and the Internet: the Monopoly board with websites instead of streets (the .com Edition, as the Internet handily informs me) was particularly hilarious. Google didn’t get a mention, with Yahoo! getting the honour of Mayfair – oh, how times change!

There was only one more thing to do after we had seen everything we wanted to see – go to the gift shop. It was a rather good gift shop, but I deliberately restrained myself to only buying a postcard. Well, okay, a postcard and a tin of Super Mario Bros. plasters. The Computer History Museum opens from 10am to 5pm and is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays; entry is $15. They also have the best website of any museum in the world (if you disagree, feel free to write a letter of comment), with lots of information and also many fascinating online exhibits, at – I highly recommend a visit.