SAN FRANCISCO (November 1, 2017) – On November 16, the Exploratorium’s returning winter exhibition, Curious Contraptions, will open to the public. The collection of automata features the work of eleven artists from around the world and gives visitors a chance to interact firsthand with charming and often hilarious mechanical objects brought to life by intricate arrangements of handmade cams, cranks, and other simple mechanisms.

“I’m so excited about this year’s show,” says Nicole Minor, who curates the seasonal Curious Contraptions exhibition. “I love that we’re creating a new winter tradition at the Exploratorium, and hope this can become the Bay Area’s ‘Nutcracker for tinkerers.’ These works are so playful and fun, and at their core is a combination of deeply resonant human stories, creative thinking, and complex mechanical systems—perfect for the Exploratorium. We love work that resists categorization, that is both art and science, education and pleasure, because that’s where deep learning begins.”

In addition to nearly 30 automata placed throughout the South Gallery, Curious Contraptions will include programs, experiences, and exhibits to inspire the engineer in anyone. Visitors will be able to make their own automata (those who attend the After Dark on November 16th will have a chance to build contraptions out of food—something like a mechanical gingerbread house), tinker with the systems of machinery common in automata, and meet a few of the artists in residence including this year’s featured artist Carlos Zapata, a well-known automata maker whose work is held in collections across the world.

Zapata, who defines automata as “creating life through movement,” uses reclaimed wood and scrap metal—materials that have already lived other lives—to create colorful, emotionally expressive narratives. That his wooden characters repeat their actions forever adds poignancy to already poetic works with titles like “Broken Hearts Repairman” and “Everlasting Love.”

Paul Spooner, last year’s featured artist, will have six automata in this year’s show. “I tend to make joke things rather than amaze people with my spectacular mechanical skills,” says Spooner. “I want people to get a hold of the idea that it’s the ideas that count rather than the splendor of the machinery.” Spooner’s titles add depth and humor to his automata; some examples are “The Last Dodo,” “An Allegory of Love,” and “Poisoned Milk.” As with many of the pieces in the collection, his work mixes Old World craftsmanship with a complex system of gears, pulleys, and levers that results in vignettes of uncanny living objects—living scenes that are deeply funny if a bit disturbing. “The Last Dodo,” for example, shows a group of sailors sitting down to a meal of what appears to be a giant roasted chicken.

“Perhaps the most famous automata maker in history is Leonardo Da Vinci,” says Martin Rock, Associate Director of Communications at the Exploratorium. “In 2002 a roboticist from NASA recreated Da Vinci’s Robot Knight, a life-size automata that could walk and wave and articulate its jaw. His notebooks also contains descriptions of a metal lion that could stand on its hind legs and open its own chest. There is a fascinating global history of automata, and the works in Curious Contraptions belong to that lineage. I like to think Da Vinci would have loved the Exploratorium, because we celebrate the intersections of art and science, and because we feed creative minds inspired by the world around them.”

Noga Elhassid, Andy Hazell, Fi Henshall, Hernán Lira, Peter Markey, Lisa Slater, Matt Smith, Wanda Sowry, Paul Spooner, Keith Newstead, Carlos Zapata

For artist bios, video interviews, and information, please visit our Curious Contraptions Artists Page.

Press Breakfast—Meet the Artist, Preview the Exhibition 
Wednesday, November 15, 2017 • 9:00–10:30 a.m. 
On November 15, the day before the exhibition opens to the public, the Exploratorium will be hosting a press preview for media representatives with press credentials. RSVP required. For more information, or to request an invitation, please email Martin Rock at

General Description of the Exhibition:
Curious Contraptions: Small Machines of Love and Mystery
November 16—January 28, 2018
Exploratorium, Pier 15 (Embarcadero at Green Street), San Francisco, CA
Included with museum admission
Explore small, surreal worlds at Curious Contraptions, a temporary exhibition of the charming, often hilarious mechanical sculptures known as automata. Like complex mechanical toys, these whimsical machines are brought to life by intricate arrangements of handmade cams, cranks, and other simple mechanisms. Each sculpture performs an absurd miniature drama reflecting its maker’s worldview and sense of humor. Take a look at their exposed inner workings and investigate the low-tech mechanisms that make these automata move.

This year, Curious Contraptions features the varied viewpoints of artists including Carlos Zapata, Paul Spooner, Keith Newstead, and Fi Henshall, plus artist residencies with Zapata, Hernán Lira, and Noga Elhassid.

The Exploratorium is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Every Thursday, the museum reopens from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for adults only. For more about how to get here, visit For tickets and pricing information, visit

Special Events:
After Dark—Food: A Four-Course After Dark Program
Thursday, November 16, 2017 • 6:00–10:00 p.m. 
This November, join us for in-depth explorations of food, served with tastings, talks, and demonstrations designed to whet your curiosity about cooking and eating in a rapidly changing world. Programs take place over four Thursday nights, and cover topics ranging from kitchen innovations to food security. Play with your food, experiment with modernist inventions, and explore tricks of trompe-l’oeil, automata, and edible art.

Artists in Residence Schedule
Featured artist Carlos Zapata in residence November 13—26, 2017
Hernán Lira in residence November 26—December 11, 2017
Noga Elhassid in residence January 17—22, 2018

Saturday Cinema—Curious Contraptions: Small Machines of Love and Mystery
November 18, 2017 • 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 p.m.
As does the exhibition Curious Contraptions: Small Machines of Love and Mystery, this whimsical program of expressive short films explores the kinetic realms of cinematic tinkering. From the sublime to the frenetic, these lively animations capture playful creativity.


About the Exploratorium
The Exploratorium is a playful learning laboratory of more than 600 interactive exhibits and experiences that ignite curiosity and transform the way people learn. Since 1969, the Exploratorium has influenced generations of entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, teachers, students, children, museum professionals and everyday doers, reaching nearly 180 million people annually from around the globe.

Open every day in June, July and August, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.—and until 10:00 p.m. (all ages) on Fridays. Open the rest of the year Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Every Thursday the Exploratorium reopens from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for adults only (18+). Easily accessible by BART and Muni. Ample parking nearby and advance parking available. For directions. For tickets and pricing information.