Press Release

Stephanie Stone (415) 379-5121
Andrew Ng (415) 379-5123


Project Description

The new Kimball Natural History Museum challenges traditional models and redefines the role of natural history museums in the 21 st century, addressing two of the most significant scientific issues of our time: the evolution and sustainability of life on Earth. It features returning favorites from the old Academy alongside brand new exhibits, which draw heavily from the Academy's 155-year legacy of research, its 26 million specimens, and the expertise of its 300 scientists and affiliates.


The first public face of the California Academy of Sciences was its natural history museum, which opened in 1891 on Market Street. After the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, the Academy built a new museum in Golden Gate Park that opened in 1916, in the form of a single hall showcasing North American birds and mammals. Over the next eight decades, the museum expanded to a dozen natural history halls. Damage sustained during the 1989 earthquake forced the Academy to rebuild again.

Ties to the Past

The outer two limestone walls of African Hall, which opened in 1934, were conserved for aesthetic and historical value, and are the only structures from the old Academy present in the new building. Both African Hall and the Foucault pendulum, installed in 1951, were beloved attractions that will return with updated designs and technology in the new building.

A New Paradigm

In contrast to the dark, segregated halls of traditional natural history museums, the Academy is forging a new paradigm of exhibitry to fill the vast, light-filled spaces designed by architect Renzo Piano. This paradigm includes changeable, modular exhibits that can be easily updated to reflect the latest scientific breakthroughs; integration of live animals and interactive technology; a focus on people-facilitated interpretation; and a dispersed exhibit layout that is integrated with, rather than segregated from, the aquarium and planetarium.

African Hall
  • Twenty-one dioramas are arranged in geographical order to present a virtual walk through Africa.

  • Featured animals include gorillas, lions, antelopes, hunting dogs, cheetahs, zebras, and baboons. Plasma touch-screens allow visitors to dive deeper into the animals’ habitats.

  • A special double-wide diorama without a glass barrier will showcase the interaction between multiple species.

  • Human evolution is also addressed in the hall, sharing the message that “We are all Africans.”

  • Dioramas in the original African Hall were meticulously photographed before demolition so that the backdrops and foreground elements could be recreated. The ceiling tiles and other architectural details were recreated from casts of the originals.

  • In a departure from the past, five of the dioramas contain live animals from the aquarium, including tortoises, chameleons, and Lake Malawi cichlids.

  • The largest live diorama features the African Penguin colony. Twenty penguins, native to the coast of South Africa and Namibia, dip and dive in a 25,000-gallon tank complete with simulated waves and realistic daytime-nighttime lighting. These penguins are part of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Program, aimed at conserving this species in the wild.

Islands of Evolution
  • The east half of the main floor contains an exhibit highlighting the Academy’s research expeditions around the world. On opening day, the two featured destinations will be the Galapagos Islands and Madagascar, both places where the Academy has a long and active history of research.

  • The Academy’s 1905-06 expedition to the Galapagos was extremely important to the institution. When the team returned to San Francisco, the 1906 earthquake and fire had destroyed most of the Academy’s research collections, so the Galapagos specimens provided the foundation for rebuilding the institution. Future expeditions to the Galapagos strengthened the Academy’s ties to the islands, and Academy scientists eventually helped to found both the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park. Although its history is not as long, the Academy’s research in Madagascar has been equally important. Over the past nine years, Academy entomologists, botanists, and herpetologists have discovered more than 1,000 new species on the island.

  • Both the Galapagos and Madagascar exhibits emphasize the islands’ roles as laboratories for evolution.

    The Galapagos exhibit entrance wall features a giant map of the Galapagos studded with iconic tortoise shells from the collection. The 14 subspecies of Galapagos tortoises all evolved from a common ancestor. Nine of these subspecies evolved in isolation on separate islands. The remaining five are from the large Island Isabela - each geographically confined to one of the island's five major volcanoes . The tortoises are a prime example of gigantism – the evolutionary process by which animals on islands grow to unprecedented sizes without the threat of predation or the pressure of competition for resources.

  • Other famous Galapagos organisms that are highlighted include marine iguanas, mockingbirds, cormorants, cacti, daisy trees, and deep-sea fish. Examples of “Darwin’s” finches are also on display, specimens rarely seen even by scientists.

  • Video footage taken from a submersible expedition allows visitors to explore life beneath the ocean’s surface – an area Darwin was never able to explore.

  • Madagascar, in contrast to the volcanic Galapagos, formed when plate tectonics separated it from Africa and India. Once isolated, it became a refuge for ancient organisms that no longer exist on the continents.

  • Many ancient and bizarre organisms from Madagascar are featured through displays of either live animals or research specimens, including spiders, elephant birds, bombardier beetles, land snails, geckos, ants, butterflies, tenrecs, medicinal plants, and spiny desert plants.

  • Visitors can also experience the life of a scientist in the field by collecting virtual butterflies and other insects. Wii gaming technology and motion-sensitive projections create fun, interactive experiences for visitors of all ages.

  • Along the back of the exhibit, a wall of photographs illustrates the history and diversity of life on Earth. Called “Evolving Story,” this display features the work of one of the great nature photographers of our time, Frans Lanting.

  • Earthquake, a major new exhibit and planetarium show that opened in the summer of 2012, takes visitors on a kinetic journey toward understanding these super seismic phenomena and how they fit into the larger story of our ever-changing Earth.

  • Guests will enter the exhibit through a 25-foot-diameter model of the Earth to discover touchable geology specimens and interactive stations explaining the basics of plate tectonics.

  • The second section of the Earthquake exhibit will focus on the diverse life forms that evolved and spread out across Gondwana, showing visitors that the same earth processes that cause destructive earthquakes in the human timescale can also provide constructive conditions for life in the geological timescale.

  • An enclosure of live ostrich chicks helps illustrate how seismic activity shapes the evolution of life on Earth. The iconic ostriches of Africa are large flightless birds in the ratite lineage, whose closest relatives live in South America and Australia. Like many African animals, these birds may never have evolved if Africa hadn’t broken off from Gondwana and drifted away.

  • Following a brief pre-show, visitors will enter an earthquake simulator designed to look like an old Victorian home in San Francisco. There, they will experience simulations of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which jolted the Bay Area, and the 1906 earthquake which was the most devastating in San Francisco's history.

  • The final section of the exhibit will address earthquake preparedness through hands-on activities that illustrate what to do before, during, and after an earthquake.

  • The Earthquake planetarium show will launch audiences on a breathtaking tour through space and time—flying over the San Andreas fault before diving into the planet’s interior, traveling back in time to witness both the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the break-up of Pangaea 200 million years ago, and much more.

Naturalist Center
  • A new hands-on Naturalist Center is staffed by education and reference specialists, and features adjoining labs and classrooms.

  • The Naturalist Center is a portal for visitors to explore the Academy’s library and research collections. It houses 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.

  • Visitors can email or drop in to ask questions about the natural world and seek help in identifying personal specimens. Staff will provide guidance through books, computers, microscopes, and contacts with in-house experts.

  • The space is also a major resource center for school groups and teachers, offering workshops, programs, and lending and reference libraries.

  • It also serves as the destination for visitors seeking in-depth knowledge about sustainable technologies and how to incorporate green practices into their own lives.

Early Explorers
  • An expanded early childhood education center caters to infants, preschoolers, and their caregivers.

  • A large window-lined wall provides an expansive view of Golden Gate Park, admitting natural sunlight.

  • The center of the space is 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.

  • The “California Backyard” activity area contains an artificial, life-size tree complete with a treehouse. Here, children can tend a miniature organic garden, play with plush animals, and explore the world under the soil in child-sized burrows.

  • The “Underwater Life” activity area features aquatic-themed murals and furniture, sea life costumes, and numerous toys, puzzles, and books.

Science in Action: Beyond the Headlines
  • Located in the Islands of Evolution gallery, this interactive area serves as a reliable source of timely, relevant science news, communicated via live talks, audio-visual displays, computer stations, and podcasts.

  • The overall design is reminiscent of a bustling newsroom, reflecting the ever-changing world of science.

  • The Academy will change the displays frequently and quickly in response to the latest scientific breakthroughs and world events.

Foucault Pendulum
  • The Foucault pendulum provides simple and elegant proof of the Earth’s rotation.

  • Suspended from the ceiling next to Morrison Planetarium, the pendulum consists of a 235-pound brass ball attached to a 30-foot-long steel aircraft cable.

  • The plane of the pendulum’s swing appears to rotate 220 degrees every day. Since no rotational forces act on the pendulum, it must be the Earth beneath that is actually rotating.

  • Since the installation of its original pendulum in 1951, the Academy has built replicas for nearly 100 museums and universities worldwide.

Museum Name

In recognition of a longtime friend and former Chairman of the institution, the Academy is naming the new natural history museum in honor of William R. Kimball. The Kimball Natural History Museum will be a powerful vehicle for furthering the goal of science education that Mr. Kimball so actively supported.

Project Team

Architecture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Genoa, Italy); Stantec Architecture (formerly Chong Partners Architecture) (San Francisco, CA). Exhibit Design: Cinnabar (Los Angeles, CA), Hodgetts&Fung (Culver City, CA), and Tim Martin Design (Los Angeles, CA). Content Development: Darcie Fohrman Associates (Monterey, CA). African Hall Diorama Fabrication: Academy Studios (Novato, CA). Exhibits Project Manager: Rhodes/Dahl ( Charleston , SC ). General Contractor: Webcor Builders (San Mateo, CA).