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May 17, 2012

Behind the scenes with Scott Moran

With the Earthquake exhibit less than a month from its public opening, I caught up with Scott Moran, Director of Concept & Exhibit Development, as he darted between ladders and rolling tables loaded with power tools and electrical wires on the ground floor of the Academy’s West Pavilion. Moran was on his way to test the audio portion of the new Shake House exhibit, set inside a replica of a San Francisco Victorian-era dining room.

Scott Moran pauses by the exhibit's entry sphere

Scott Moran pauses by the exhibit's entry sphere

“Every exhibit tells a story,” he says, comparing this phase of preparation to a dress rehearsal.

To tell the story of Earthquake, Moran and his team are using an 8,000-square-foot area and six different installations (including a mini-dome theatre, a live animal enclosure, fossils and a 25-foot wide model of Earth that you can walk through) to describe the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates across two very different time spans—the vast stretch of geologic time and the more immediate lens of human time. (Launching at the same time will be a new planetarium show that examines the seismic forces that shape the Earth. Stay tuned for a behind-the-scenes look at the artists and visualizers who are putting the finishing touches on this show.)

“Geologically, earthquakes are a natural process of our dynamic planet,” Moran explains. Plate tectonics has impacted evolution, the dispersion of species, and the creation of continents over hundreds of millions of years. “But on a personal level,” he says, “we experience this process as a series of jolts. We call these jolts earthquakes.”

Maybe that’s why the Shake House is so popular. This version is the third such exhibit to open in the Academy. Two previous versions were developed in the 1980s and 90s by Dr. Bruce Bolt. Bolt was a UC Berkeley professor and former president of the Academy’s Board of Trustees.

“This time, we didn’t just want people to go into a dark room and get a good shake, no matter how fun that is. We asked ourselves, ‘what happens when you’re in a quake?’ You’re usually at home. The first thing you do is look around and try to figure out what’s happening.”

That’s why the new Shake House is an immersive experience set in a living room. The walls are painted stark white. But everything that rattles around during a quake—paintings, dishes, glassware, books and a chandelier—are vibrantly colored. The view through the bay window is of San Francisco’s famous “Painted Ladies of Alamo Square,” a row of Victorian houses framing the city’s downtown skyline.

The experience will take visitors through the tremors of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Then the lights will flicker and dim. The view out the window will slowly change from the modern city to the skyline circa 1906. A simulation of the historic 7.9 tremors will begin.

A Santa Cruz native, Moran has lived through several California earthquakes, including the 6.7 Northridge quake in 1994. “I wasn’t in San Francisco for the ’89 Loma Prieta quake, but I felt it,” he says proudly. Attending Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Moran remembers that the powerful tremors woke him during an after-class nap.

All this shaking is having a subtle impact on the Academy staff working around the clock to complete the exhibit before May 26. “People are telling me they’re making the time to put together earthquake preparedness kits,” Moran says.

“Last weekend,” he adds with a grin, “I even found myself buying three additional flashlights.”

Barbara Tannenbaum

Filed under: Uncategorized — btannenbaum @ 2:56 pm

Secrets of the Shake House

                                                                          Secrets of Shake House

Scott Moran in front of Shake House bookshelf

The Academy’s Earthquake exhibit explores the Earth’s tectonic plate movement on a vast geological timescale, the effects of earthquakes on a more immediate human timescale, and quake preparedness tips for living in seismically active regions such as the Bay Area.

In the Shake House, the titles on the bottom bookshelf are:


An Ever-Changing Place

Early Warning

The Imperial Mantle

Earth in Motion

The Story of our Earth

The Story of Mechanics

The Story of Force and Motion

The Earth Before Man

Our Beginnings in the Old World

The Majestic Rocky Mountains


Your Land and Mine

San Francisco

San Francisco in Color

Oh, California

Pacific Rift

The Last Place on Earth

Our Town

Plain Talk from the Hill

Tales of Land and Sea

A World Unsuspected


Life on the Line

Power Shift


One More Time

Unforgettable Fire

Ashes to Ashes

Design of Masonry Structures

Clear and Present Danger

Sign of Chaos

Thriving on Chaos

Lord of Chaos

Alarms and Diversions

Losing our Cool


Studies on Hysteria

This Moment on Earth

Making Peace with the Planet

The Winds of Change

Disaster Preparedness

Fun Facts

• Inside the Shake House, the walls are painted white. Everything that rattles and bounces during a quake is brightly colored.

• “Water” in the sealed fish bowl is actually mineral oil. It was chosen because actual water would turn green with algae growth and need to be regularly changed.

• This room has no breakable items. The plates, glasses, mirror and fishbowl are all made of plastic.

• The chandelier uses LED light strips to simulate incandescent lighting of 1989 and the flickering gas lights of 1906.

• Be sure to look at the titles on the lower shelf of the book case. Reading from left to right, you’ll see how these titles literally spell out the larger idea behind the entire Earthquake exhibit.

• The room’s framed painting pays tribute to the schooner Academy, an 89-foot sailing vessel that took Academy scientists to the Galapagos Islands in 1905. The great 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco during the expedition, destroying the Academy’s original Market Street building and a majority of the collection. The 75,000 specimens collected in the Galapagos formed the basis of the new, rebuilt Academy in Golden Gate Park.

Barbara Tannenbaum

Filed under: Uncategorized — btannenbaum @ 2:49 pm

Secrets of the Shake House

Shake House is back for the new Earthquake Exhibit.
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