SAN FRANCISCO (November 1, 2007) — When the new California Academy of Sciences opens in Golden Gate Park on September 27, 2008, it may more appropriately be called a natural future museum than a natural history museum. Unlike the dark halls and “cabinet of curiosities” displays that have traditionally characterized natural history museums, the new Academy’s open, airy galleries will be bursting with light and life. Its exhibits will address not only the history of life on Earth, but also its future, engaging visitors in conversations about two of the most important scientific questions of our time: “How did life evolve?” and “How will it survive?”.
From the colony of penguins swimming in African Hall (members of the Species Survival Plan breeding program) to the wildflowers blooming on the iconic living roof (sources of nectar for local birds and butterflies), the Academy will bring new vibrancy to topics like biodiversity and sustainability. The animals of the Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium, once confined to their own hall, will now be found throughout the building. The exhibits will also be infused with human life—Academy scientists and trained docents will be a critical component of the exhibition program, facilitating discussions and providing hands-on learning opportunities. Flexible exhibit modules will allow content to be updated frequently in response to new scientific discoveries. Modules will incorporate the latest technologies, such as Wii gaming wands and motion-sensor projection screens, encouraging visitors to interact not only with the exhibits but also with each other.
The exhibits will draw heavily on the Academy’s own research, incorporating many of the scientific specimens Academy scientists have collected over the past 155 years. The stories behind these specimens will be told through videos, graphic panels, podcasts, and live programming. Windows into an active research laboratory and collections storage room will create additional transparency between the Academy’s scientific and public faces.
The Academy’s original African Hall opened in 1934 and quickly became one of San Francisco’s best-loved attractions. To preserve a piece of its history, the Academy saved two of the exterior walls of the original hall during the demolition of its first building in Golden Gate Park, made casts of the detailed ceiling tiles and other architectural details, and photographed the painted backgrounds of the hall’s dioramas in meticulous detail. The hall has now been recreated and will soon be repopulated with the diorama animals that have captivated visitors for decades. While many features of the hall will look nearly identical to the original, there will also be new surprises when the exhibit opens next year. Plasma touch screens near the dioramas will allow visitors to take a virtual safari, viewing video footage of the animals in the wild and learning more about their adaptations. A new human evolution panel will trace the origin of Homo sapiens in Africa, reminding visitors that “we are all Africans.” Additionally, five of the dioramas will feature live animals: chameleons, tortoises, endangered cichlids from Lake Malawi, a white-throated monitor, and a colony of African penguins.
Altered State: Climate Change in California (open through February 5, 2012)
One of the world’s “biodiversity hotspots,” California is home to a vast mosaic of life. The Academy’s new Altered State: Climate Change in California exhibit will showcase these treasures, displaying dozens of specimens from the Academy’s unrivaled collection of California plants, animals, fossils, and minerals. Shaped by the state’s unique geology, climate, and marine and terrestrial systems, many of these species cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. The exhibit will also highlight the impact of these natural resources on California’s economy and culture—and vice versa. California will be used as a case study to explore the science of climate change, the effects we might expect to see in our own backyard, and the steps that can be taken to mitigate these dramatic changes. “Climate change is the largest and most significant problem that we will face in the foreseeable future,” says Dr. Peter Roopnarine, curator of geology at the Academy and lead curator of the exhibit. “It’s something we should all care about, because we stand to lose a lot—especially here in California where our natural resources are so rich and beautiful. Fortunately, California is in a unique position to study and address the problem. The state is one of the largest economies in the world, so the actions we take here will make a difference. It also has a long tradition of innovation and a wealth of technological and scientific expertise.” The exhibit will explore the possible future impacts of climate change and introduce visitors to the latest models scientists are using to make predictions. Other possible ramifications include sea level and temperature changes, shifts in wild fire regimes, and agricultural and human health impacts over the next century. Interactive displays will allow visitors to witness the effects of their actions on carbon dioxide levels and, in turn, on delicate ecosystems. A feedback station will provide a forum for visitors to share the actions they are taking to reduce their impact on the environment.
Islands of Evolution
The Islands of Evolution exhibit will highlight the Academy’s research expeditions around the world, inviting visitors to practice field research techniques, view specimens from remote and exotic locales, and follow in the footsteps of Academy scientists as they discover new species, interesting adaptations, and evolutionary relationships. On opening day, the exhibit’s two featured destinations will be the Galapagos Islands and Madagascar, both places where the Academy has a long and active history of research. Islands are ideal places for the Academy’s scientists to conduct research because they function as laboratories for evolution. Isolated from other life forms, island species adapt to fill new niches, often changing relatively quickly. The Galapagos and Madagascar provide an interesting comparison, since the islands formed in two different ways. Young oceanic islands created by volcanic activity, the Galapagos were a “clean slate,” colonized only by species that could swim, drift, fly, or catch a ride on wind currents to the islands. Arriving in a new habitat with far less competition and fewer predators, these pioneers adapted in a variety of dramatic ways. Birds like cormorants lost the ability to fly, finches diversified to take advantage of a wide new array of food sources, and tortoises grew to unprecedented sizes. Madagascar, on the other hand, became an island when tectonic activity separated it from Africa and India. Now isolated for over 160 million years, it contains nearly 13,000 species of plants and vertebrate animals that are found exclusively on the island —a last hold-out for many ancient groups that are now extinct on the mainland. Live animals and research specimens will highlight the unique biodiversity from both regions, and interactive stations will allow visitors to participate in the scientific process by “collecting” virtual specimens. Along the back side of the gallery, a wall of photographs will illustrate the history and diversity of life on Earth. Called “Evolving Story,” this display will feature the work of one of the great nature photographers of our time, Frans Lanting.
Science in Action: Beyond the Headlines
Located within the Islands of Evolution gallery, Science in Action will serve as a reliable source of timely, relevant science news, communicated via live talks, audio-visual displays, computer stations, and podcasts. Featuring six flat screen displays topped by a reader board with science headlines, the overall design will be reminiscent of a bustling newsroom, reflecting the ever-changing world of science. The exhibit will also include spaces for physical specimens from the Academy’s collections, making the research more tangible. The Academy will change the displays frequently and quickly in response to the latest scientific breakthroughs and world events.
The new Naturalist Center will serve as a portal for visitors to explore the Academy’s library and research collections. It will house a diverse sampling of the Academy’s 210,000 books, 25,000 maps, 300,000 images, and 26 million animals, plants, minerals, and cultural artifacts. Staffed by educators, it will feature adjoining classrooms and an education lab. Using reference materials, computers, microscopes, and contacts with in-house experts, the Naturalist Center staff will answer visitors’ questions about the natural world and help them identify their rocks, leaves, feathers, and other personal treasures. The space will be a resource center for school groups and teachers, offering workshops, programs, and lending and reference libraries. It will also serve as the destination for visitors seeking in-depth knowledge about sustainable technologies and how to incorporate green practices into their own lives.
Early Explorers Cove
An expanded early childhood education center will cater to infants, preschoolers, and their caregivers. Designed to support a young child’s active energy while introducing them to the natural world, the space will contain three main activity areas. The center of the space will be dominated by a 15-foot replica of the Academy’s 1905 research schooner. Children can play in galley and sleeping areas and imagine life on a sea-based expedition. As young “researchers-in-training,” they can compare, sort, and study toddler-friendly research specimens. The “California Backyard” activity area contains an artificial, life-size tree. Here, children can tend a miniature organic garden, play with plush animals, and explore the world under the soil in a child-sized burrow. The “Underwater Life” activity area features aquatic-themed murals and furniture, as well as numerous toys, puzzles, and books. Costumes and props will allow older children to imagine they are under the sea.
About the new California Academy of Sciences Building
One of the world’s most innovative museum building programs, the record-setting new California Academy of Sciences building will blend seamlessly into San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Expected to earn a LEED Platinum certification, the new Academy will employ a wide range of energy-saving materials and technologies. Designed by Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano, and topped with a 2.5-acre living roof, the new building will stand as an embodiment of the Academy’s mission to explore, explain and protect the natural world. With interpretive signage about its green features and a roof-top observation deck, the building will also serve as an exhibit in and of itself. Construction on the exterior of the new facility, which began in September of 2005, was completed at the end of October 2007. The Academy received the keys to the building on November 1, and will now begin the process of building out the exhibits and moving its collection of live animals and research specimens into their new home.
The California Academy of Sciences is one of the world’s preeminent natural history museums and is an international leader in scientific research about the natural world. Founded in 1853 as the first scientific institution in the West, the Academy is now home to the Kimball Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium and Morrison Planetarium. The Academy conducts research in 11 fields of study, and houses over 26 million scientific specimens. This major new initiative builds on the Academy’s distinguished history and deepens its commitment to advancing scientific literacy, engaging the public, and documenting and conserving Earth’s natural resources. The new building will open on September 27, 2008.