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Planning began in 1978 by members of the Junior League of Palo Alto and later assistance by the San Jose Junior League. The first 20,000-square-foot (1,900 m2) temporary exhibit finally opened in 1990 “The Garage” as it was named, opened in San Jose’s former convention center. On October 31, 1998, it opened a brand-new 132,000-square-foot (12,300 m2) facility, and has had 4,000,000 visitors.
The museum is composed of three floors, each with its own significance. The ground floor has the main entrance, a gift shop and cafe, the Imax theater, and a recreational area that is reserved for special events. The Tech Store contains various gifts, shirts and souvenirs. Café Primavera offers a varied menu of pasta dishes, sandwiches, pizzas, soups and salads for both adults and children. The ground level is a location where Segway and other robotic demos are displayed and given. The Tech Museum's architecture is the work of Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta.
Four major theme galleries fill the upper level and lower level of the museum: Communication, Exploration, Innovation and Life Tech. These galleries are constantly being revamped and changed to fit the theme movies and exhibits. On the lower level there is also a public piece of artwork titled “Origin”, which is inside a 45-foot-tall (14 m) cylinder.
The Hackworth IMAX Dome Theater (named after Mike and Joan Hackworth) shows mainstream movies as well as educational films. It is Northern California’s only domed IMAX Theater and can seat up to 280 people. IMAX stands for maximum image, the film is four times larger than normal movie film, and the projector is as large as a Volkswagen beetle, which allows for larger projection.
The Tech Museum reflects its social context, capturing Silicon Valley's celebration of technology with a fascination with what the museum’s literature refers to as the “gizmos and gadgets” produced by Valley companies. Early reviews, however, criticized The Tech for failing to provide a coherent direction or message.
The Tech has many exhibits dealing with energy efficiency, customization, exploration, and genetics.
On special occasions The Tech will rent out Parkside Hall from the city of San Jose to host special larger Exhibits. In 2007, this hall was the home to the exhibit known as Body Worlds 2, which brought in over 280,000 guests. In winter of 2008, there was a special Leonardo da Vinci Exhibit (called Leonardo: 500 Years into the Future) that displayed some of his inventions, findings, and pictures. It ended January 25, 2009, after a three-week extension.
The Tech will open a new exhibition on Digital Music on March 6, 2014.
The museum of Innovation offers a new approach to viewing galleries from a wide variety of different media. The majority of these exhibits is interactive and allows the viewer to engage in the learning experience. The Tech also has joint partnerships with local attractions, ranging from jazz festivals to the Global Festival of Art.
The Tech Awards is a program of the Tech wherein a yearly ceremony is held for individuals and organizations to get recognition for their technological contributions to improving the human condition.
The Tech Challenge is a signature program of The Tech. It is a design challenge competition for students grades 5-12.
Over the past 26 years, The Tech Challenge had around 17,000 students compete by building devices to solve issues such as wildfires, fish removal, and landing on an asteroid. 
The Tech Virtual launched in December 2007. On June 4, 2008, the world's first museum exhibits developed using this open source method opened in the museum's own Virtual Test Zone gallery. The seven exhibits, all contributed under a Creative Commons license and prototyped in the virtual world of Second Life, became part of the museum's Art, Film, Music and Games exhibition. The Virtual Test Zone gallery itself is a prototype exhibit area that will consistently feature virtual-to-real-world exhibits on specific themes resulting from The Tech Virtual programs.