The Soul of a New Museum: the Academy of Sciences

By Joe Eaton Special to the Panet
Thursday September 18, 2008 - 09:58:00 AM
Good, informative expositional display: Darwin’s finches.
By Ron Sullivan
Good, informative expositional display: Darwin’s finches.

Natural history writers don’t get a lot of perks. But the California Academy of Sciences, which reopens Sept. 27, did invite a bunch of us ink-stained wretches to a mid-afternoon buffet at the newly reconstituted museum in Golden Gate Park on Sunday (tasty microcheeseburgers, samosas, and chicken-on-a-stick) and let us wander among the exhibits, 

Our responses (Ron came with me) were mixed. I’m not an architecture critic, so I won’t take on Renzo Piano’s building. The new exhibits were technically impressive, especially the big showpieces like the Philippine coral reef. However, we both felt that occasionally content had taken a back seat to design, that the exuberant variety of the old museum was gone, and that the dumbing-down process that has afflicted too many American museums had left its mark. 

The tropical rainforest exhibit, our first stop, was not quite together. The trees are in place, but other plants inside the Biosphere-like dome were still crated. We did spot some of the brightly colored tropical birds—mostly tanagers and honeycreepers-from ground level. If the Academy pulls it off, this one will be spectacular. 

We were also impressed by the first-floor gallery presenting evolution, biodiversity, and field research through the prisms of Madagascar and the Galapagos Islands. Evolution, properly, was right up front. One exhibit showcased Peter and Rosemary Grant’s multi-decade studies of how climatic shifts affect seed availability and beak size and shape among the Darwin’s finches-evolution in real time.  

The Living Roof reminded Ron of the bluffs at Outer Point Reyes: many of the same plant species, including California aster (now a Symphiotrichum), tidy tips, and thrift, covering hummocky terrain. All were low-water California natives. Bumblebees, honeybees, beeflies, and a lone butterfly—a West Coast lady—joined us on the roof. A docent told us the first volunteer plants had shown up as well, suggesting the need for weeding down the road. 

Downstairs, there are some old familiars: the recreated Swamp, featuring a new white alligator, and the African Hall, which now houses the penguin colony. We noticed subtle shifts there, with more emphasis on ecoregions, a few alcoves for live reptiles and fish, and even models of plants like the bizarre welwitschia. The Foucault Pendulum still swings near the evolution exhibit, and some of the Bufano sculptures are still on the grounds. 

The Steinhart Aquarium occupies the lowest level, with tanks set in rippling seablue walls. We stopped to rest at the coral reef where 1600 fish, according to another docent, swarmed the reef face. This huge tank’s acrylic wall had been fired in a specially built circular oven in Colorado, then hauled to California at a maximum speed of ten miles an hour. Other huge tanks housed fish of the California coast and formed the ground floor of the rain forest exhibit, with monster arapaimas and catfish cruising under the trees. It would be a great spot for a manatee. 

We met more old friends downstairs, like the giant Pacific octopus (who had wedged himself into a crevice and refused to come out) and the massive alligator gars. Apart from the reef and California coast, exhibits were organized around behavior rather than geography or taxonomy: how sea creatures move, feed, reproduce, defend themselves. 

One really cool touch was a small display of Curators’ Favorites: oddities like insectivorous plants, electric-blue day geckos, and objects found in the stomachs of tiger sharks, including a license plate, an unopened can of Spam, and two apparent Barbie dolls. On the other side of the ledger, the aquarium devoted a lot of floor space to kid-level interactive exhibits. 

Some absences were striking: no fossils except for the iconic Allosaurus near the entrance; no cultural objects; no rocks and minerals. If there was a turf war for display space, the fish and reptile people clearly won.  

And the Museum Store was a disappointment. The tchotchke-to-book ratio was high, and the books were the standard field guides you could find at Barnes & Noble. The old store stocked scholarly treatises on bird song, East African reptiles, and the art of the Mound Builders. I hope they will return. 

Still, the Academy kept the Latin names on labels (unlike some recent exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium) and has made an effort to present complex ideas in accessible ways. And the place is full of nice subtle touches, like the wall in one of the upper floors with embedded ammonite sections, pyrite crystals, and leaf imprints. 

We didn’t see the scientists’ shiny new offices. That’s another kind of loss: the old Academy backstage had acquired a funky charm, with skulls perched atop specimen cabinets and Gary Larson cartoons everywhere. It wasn’t the Gormenghastly maze Richard Fortey describes in his new book on the British Natural History Museum, but it was getting there. It will take the inhabitants of the new Academy years to reconstruct the clutter.