by columnist Catherine Sigmond

Last week the Exploratorium officially re-opened in its 330,000 ft. new building at Pier 15 in San Francisco after a $300 million, multi-year construction project.

The new museum at Pier 15, which is three times bigger than the previous location at the Palace of Fine Arts, boasts an array of exciting new exhibits on all sorts of topics. Visitors can enter the rain chamber, where they select a famous past storm and stand as the exhibit recreates the frequency, size, and velocity of its raindrops, or “The Colors of Water,” where they can match the daily color of the San Francisco Bay and investigate what factors cause it to change from day to day.

But this science museum doesn’t just exist in the physical realm- it also has an extensive virtual presence. It’s not that the museum simply has a really great website with excellent teaching resources (which incidentally it does- check it out here). Rather, visitors searching for ways to engage with the museum without actually settling foot inside the new building can enter an entire virtual world that the museum created in Second Life and use it to engage with exhibits and attend regular public events through an avatar that they create.

In the SciLands region of Second Life users can explore Exploratorium Island and its sister island, ‘Sploland, allowing them to examine over 100 virtual exhibits all while using instant messaging, gestures, and chats to communicate with others. The experience is completely dependent on visitors’ curiosity and creativity.

The museum’s virtual reality blog, Fabricated Realities, features some of the experiments and events that take place in these virtual spaces as well as others that occur in the mash-up between the real and virtual worlds.

Once, for example, the museum streamed a rare transit of the planet Mercury live from the telescopes at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Kitt Peak, Arizona, into the International Spaceflight Museum site in Second Life. An international avatar audience had the opportunity to pose questions to an avatar staff member on stage who answered questions, while a three-dimensional model of the orbit of Mercury hung over the stage allowing avatars to fly up and examine the orbiting planet.

Many of the exhibits featured on the island are based off of real-life components in the museum itself, such as a series of ever-larger dominoes that visitors can push in order to explore chain reactions relating to force and motion. However Second Life also allows the museum to create exhibits that would be impractical or unsafe to build in a real physical space. One great example is a virtual exhibit where users can visualize a nuclear chain reaction by dropping a Ping-Pong ball on a series of mousetraps loaded with other Ping-Pong balls and watching as they are continuously set off.

It’s hard to imagine exactly how it all works without taking a look at it yourself. If you’re new to Second Life or just plain curious, take a look at this “machinima” (a film made entirely in the virtual world) made by the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute to highlight some of the cool exhibits and recent events in Second Life on Exploratorium Island and in ‘Sploland.

I’ll admit that at first I was a bit underwhelmed by some of the exhibits the video profiles. But as I kept watching I found myself more and more impressed by what I saw. The virtual space in Second Life could be great for prototyping new exhibit components, demonstrating large-scale scientific phenomena that would be difficult to recreate in a small room, and allowing both visitors and museum professionals from different parts of the world interact with one another.

For me, however, visiting the museum in Second Life will forever be second to a trip to the museum itself. Although there is a high level of social interaction on Second Life, it can never compare to seeing the reactions on people’s faces to the things they see and do in a science museum and the spontaneity of real conversation. I love that Exploratorium Island is a place where I can simulate what it’s like to orbit the Earth if I want to, but I’ll never be able to hold a bear skull in my hands or illuminate a light bulb by using my body to conduct electric charge like I can in real life.

So while it does have some cool features, I’m still undecided about whether or not I think this is something museums should devote a lot of time to.

How do you feel about museums in the virtual world? Is building a museum in Second Life something all museums should consider?