Press Release

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



Project Description

Tusher African Hall is the only hall from the original California Academy of Sciences that has been recreated in the new building. Twenty-one dioramas arranged in geographic order showcase a variety of mounted and live African animals, handcrafted rocks and plants, and meticulously painted backdrops, giving millions of visitors an in-depth look into Africa ’s diverse ecosystems.


The original African Hall opened in 1934 with 24 dioramas, and it quickly became a San Francisco icon. Leslie Simson, a San Francisco-born mining engineer, donated $300,000 for its construction. He also led a 1930 expedition to collect specimens for the hall, believing in the educational value and importance of creating a record of Africa ’s vanishing wildlife. Frank Tose, then Chief of Exhibits at the Academy, sketched and photographed the actual localities where the specimens were collected to ensure that each diorama would be true to life.

Saving the Past

While it was not possible to save the original African Hall in its entirety, the outer two limestone walls of the hall were conserved for aesthetic and historical value; they are the only structures from the old Academy that are present in the new building. In order to faithfully recreate the dioramas, extensive photographs, video footage, and paint samples were taken in the old African Hall before demolition began in 2004. The mounted animals were saved, cleaned, and repaired for re-use. Ceiling tiles and other architectural details were recreated from casts of the originals.

Enhancing the New

Although much of Tusher African Hall looks identical to the original, the visitor experience is enhanced with some surprising new elements.  Five of the dioramas contain live animals. Human evolution is also addressed in the hall, sharing the message that “We are all Africans.” Redesigned interpretative panels and plasma touch-screens allow visitors to dive deeper into the animals’ habitats and their adaptations. And one of the dioramas—the Somali arid zone—features a video projection of elephants walking in the background.

List of Dioramas
  • Twelve dioramas are exact replicas of the originals: mountain gorilla, bushbuck, olive baboons, lions, cheetah, roan antelope, sable antelope, klipspringer, black lechwe, Hunter’s hartebeest, Kirk’s dik dik, and hunting dogs
  • Four dioramas have been newly created: Namib desert; Cape Floristic Province; montane forest with colobus monkeys, bongo, and duiker; and a Somali arid zone, which is a double-wide diorama with no glass barrier, containing Grevy’s zebras, antelopes, a leopard, and virtual elephants walking in the background
  • Five dioramas contain live animals: African penguins, white-throated monitor, Lake Malawi cichlids, Jackson’s chameleon, and a pancake tortoise with great plated lizards.
African Penguins
  • The Academy’s African penguin colony is located at the end of the hall. They can be viewed through an acrylic window that is 26 feet wide and 16 feet tall.
  • The 25,000 gallon tank has a surge system designed to simulate wave action and stimulate the activities of the birds.
  • The life support system for this exhibit filters the water every 30 minutes, and maintains the water at a chilly 50°F.
  • There are now 20 birds in the Academy’s colony of African penguins, including seven chicks that hatched at the aquarium over the past two years.
  • The Academy’s penguins are a part of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Program, aimed at conserving this species in the wild.
  • African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) live off the coast of South Africa and Namibia. In 2010, the IUCN classified the species as endangered, or at very high risk of extinction in the wild.
Facts and Figures
  • The background shell of each diorama is 17 feet tall.
  • The diorama murals required 8,400 square feet of canvas and over 63 gallons of paint (not including the primer paint).
  • The groundrolls contain eight tons of fiber-reinforced plaster.
  • In the old dioramas, each plant was created in wax from plaster molds of actual specimens. Fourteen tons of native grasses and trees were brought back from Africa for this purpose. Many of these fragile wax plants have returned, supplemented with plastic plants and dried plants.
  • In the 1930s, Girl Scouts and students at Girl’s High School helped to shape and hand-tint leaves and rocks with astounding detail.
  • The mounted animals consist of tanned skins glued onto body forms made of steel rods, plaster, and burlap. The body forms were based on detailed measurements and photographs taken in the field.
  • The mounted gorilla has developed a bald spot over the years and was fitted with a hairpiece before being placed in its diorama.

Tusher African Hall is part of the Tusher African Center at the California Academy of Sciences. Tusher African Center is named after Thomas W. and Pauline Tusher, whose generous gift of $10 million helped to rebuild African Hall as part of the Academy’s $488 million reconstruction.

Project Team

Architecture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Genoa, Italy); Stantec Architecture (San Francisco, CA). Diorama Fabrication: Academy Studios (Novato, CA). Live Animal Tanks: Dixon Studios (Tucson, AZ). Penguin Tank: Thinc Design (New York, NY). Content Development: California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco, CA). Graphics: Picnic (San Francisco, CA). Audio/Visual: Mindi Lipschultz (Los Angeles, CA) and BBI (San Francisco, CA). Executive Producer: Cinnabar (Los Angeles, CA). Exhibits Project Manager: Rhodes/Dahl (Charleston, SC). General Contractor: Webcor Builders (San Mateo, CA).