California Academy of Sciences


of an Exhibition

by Judith White

Published on January 21, 2009, Modified on March 31, 2011

  • Description:

    On a Friday afternoon in mid January my husband, Dale Marcellini, and I made a visit to the new California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Both of us had been to the old Academy. One of us a couple of times; the other many times, first as a child and later as a graduate student regularly using the library. Both of us have worked in museums and zoos for many years in education, exhibits and animal husbandry (Dale was curator of herpetology at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.)

    But this was not a professional visit. A friend, who is not a museum professional, invited us. We put aside our critical faculties and planned to be tourists and “just enjoy the visit,” as our friend advised. After a while that proved difficult; there were just too many issues that stirred us up. So, the next day, thinking back on the experience, we decided to write down our impressions. Although we did return to the Academy for a second visit to check our initial responses, we do not consider this a formal review, but rather an impressionistic reaction to the place.

    First of all, there were many things at the new Academy that we very much enjoyed. The building as an architectural form was stunning. The extensive living animal collection was beautiful. The staff, very much in attendance, was friendly and helpful. A number of spectacular large aquarium tanks provided eye-popping displays of aquatic creatures. The innovative Living Roof was interesting and lovely to view. The renovated African Hall thoughtfully combined old and new. And, lunch at the Moss restaurant was very good—-unusual in a natural history museum.

    But there was also much that was disappointing, contradictory and confusing. For starters: the building. It was certainly a fabulous structure with its giant glass and steel spheres. But this “fabulous structure” was also a drawback because we were constantly aware of it: glass, steel rods, electric lights, concrete pillars, stairways, and elevators. The message that it conveyed to us was “man-made urban environment.” The natural world—- rocks, animals and plants— appeared to take a back seat.

    Also the structure of the building seems to have put limits on how the exhibits were organized and developed. In numerous places it looked as if the Academy had to “make do,” working around the building, not with it. This was particularly apparent in the Rainforests of the World exhibit, which was built inside the building’s dominant giant glass sphere. Even under the best conditions, walk-through rainforest exhibits are very challenging to create. Their goal is difficult: to offer an immersion experience for visitors, while providing a comfortable and healthy environment for animals and plants that require privacy and other special conditions. The glass sphere in which the Academy’s Rainforest is built may have made this design challenge even greater, because everything is on show. There are no places to hide support facilities for animals and plants and there are no enclosures for animals built into the space. In the Rainforest we saw various exhibit elements that appeared to be ad hoc additions. Animals were exhibited in little wood and glass boxes set onto the visitor path. Strips of plastic, looking like hi-tech bamboo, were bunched around the boxes in what seemed an attempt at camouflage. Those same plastic pieces were placed as screening devices along the visitor walkway. In the Canopy area, where the elevator is also located, rectangular planters had been tacked onto a large cement wall. The area looked more like the lobby of an apartment building than a forest

    Although we realized that the Rainforest was relatively recently planted, it was far sparser than we anticipated and biologically limited. There were no large trees and the number of other plant species was not very extensive. Many of the plants were ones frequently found in indoor urban spaces, such as shopping malls. (The butterflies flying free were beautiful and interesting, and there were a few small birds.) Overall, there was not much “forest” to see. Also, it was a bit unclear to us as to what this Rainforest was about. We read signs along the walkway that said “Entering Understory” and " Canopy," implying that we were in a generic rainforest. At other points on the walkway signs told us we were entering specific forests: Borneo, Madagascar, or South America—-but the forest we saw was essentially the same one.

    What was fun in the Rainforest, however, was looking around and down at the pool below where we could see fish swimming (and people on a lower level walking below the fish!). And it was fun to look out through the glass sphere into the rest of the Academy to see bright colors of exhibits and people walking around.

    The Rainforest entrance and Understory occupies the first floor of the Academy, as does the Planetarium (which we did not see.) Much of the rest of the first floor is open space reminiscent of an urban plaza with kiosks and signs. The kiosks make up three interpretive exhibits: Altered State: Climate Change in California; Islands of Evolution; and Science in Action. They all allow for open access. You can start wherever you want. But there is so much to see—- written plaques, photos, video, computers— getting started can be confusing. Much of what we saw in these exhibits was interpretive material-plaques, posters, video, interactives—-that were manufactured and made for the exhibit. There were relatively few “real” or “natural” objects. Even the giant Tyrannosaurus that towers over Altered State was made of a plastic cast material.

    We did find elsewhere on the first floor two live exhibits that drew our attention. One was a shallow sandy-bottomed tank of rays. We had a great view of them from above actively swimming. The other was a place where we could look into the top of the giant Philippine coral reef that was located in the Aquarium area on the floor below. Industrial-sized lights hung over both tanks in plain view, but they did not detract, rather, they leant a kind of behind-the-scenes legitimacy.

    At the lowest level of the Academy was the Aquarium area. There we found the spectacular large tanks, that we alluded to previously: Northern California Coast, Philippine Coral Reef, Alligator Gars and Amazon Flooded Forest. All had great numbers of beautiful, interesting and healthy-appearing fish. There were good places to sit and view the animals. We did so, and felt immersed in the natural world —-unlike our experience in the Rainforest. At most of these tanks picture ID cards were at hand to help us identify what we were looking at. Also, there were numerous small tanks with individual species and some thoughtful small interpretive panels next to each.

    What was not fun at the Aquarium level was getting around. The layout was confusing and it was difficult to know what topic area we were in and looking at. On the first walk through of the Aquarium level, we missed the Flooded Forest. Another time we thought we were looking at Northern California fish, only to find ourselves in some place entirely different: Water World.

    Blam! Water World! Interpretive overkill. Giant video images were projected on a wall of rippling blue plastic into which were set many small aquariums. Voices/music/noise accompanied the images. It felt as if we were in a disco. Interpretive interactives set up in the middle of the hall added to the disorder. There were some beautiful little animals in some of the small aquariums here, but it was difficult to see them, much less pay attention or find out anything about them. Other locations in the Aquarium suffered the same fate, but to a lesser degree. As a result our overall experience there was one of confusion and noise, with human-made objects getting in the way of appreciating the natural ones.

    In contrast to all this busy-ness were two areas of the Academy that we particularly enjoyed because of their simplicity: One was the Living Roof, planted with native California vegetation, which helped to insulate the building and provide habitat for local wildlife. Here is one place where the building itself is meant to be the center of attention. And it worked: a great example of technology and nature working together. Interpretation was simple and effective: clear, concise signs explained how the roof works and what visitors can see on it.

    We found the African Hall another understated success. It was a visually harmonious space, with wall color and interpretive panels that do not jar or detract from the dioramas of animals and plants. We enjoyed the Hall’s uncluttered spaciousness, and its judicious variety of interpretive devices—-but not too many. In contrast to the urban bustle of the first floor exhibits, it felt like a nature refuge.

    At the end of our visit we looked at a kiosk exhibit called Science in Action, featuring short documentaries about scientists and their current projects. A volunteer docent explained to us that a key message the Academy was hoping to communicate in the new building was that of its mission in research and conservation. She said that we should find that message throughout the building’s exhibits. (We did see some interpretive panels that profiled Academy scientists and their work.) Then before leaving we passed by the gift shop, which featured toy versions of Bonnie the albino alligator—-the most publicized and “popular” animal exhibit at the Academy. The alligator exhibit was one we had misgivings about. This animal, although visually striking, is one that is not normally viable in nature. (She’s kind of a freak.) Her prominence at the Academy appears to contradict the Academy’s research/conservation message.

    And that got us wondering, “What is the message we have taken away from our visit today?” We saw and heard a lot of things: butterflies, elevators, swimming fish, strollers with kids, portraits of scientists, a white alligator, a “living roof,” plants in pots, disco-like video, delicate sea dragons, arcade interactives, posters on global warming, large incandescent lights, ramp-ways and railings, just to name a few. The afternoon was stimulating but confusing and contradictory. And unfortunately one thing that did not come through was a clear message about “science” and its methods. It was there, but diluted by the hyper-active exhibit atmosphere created in the new Academy.

Latest Comments (6)

Exhibition or Institution?

by Jonathan Katz - January 24, 2009

Thanks for this review. First of all, I greatly appreciate your effort to identify yourself- who you are, where you come from and why you were there.
In this spirit of disclosure- I(jonathan Katz) was the Executive Producer of the Nat. History exhibits which include both open plan exhibits and Africa Hall, among others you did not mention.
Many of your observations resonated with me, and by the way, reflect the thinking of staff at the Academy as well. This is a very ambitious project, and all the participants know they have committed to an evolutionary process to continually develop it.
Learning to live with this brilliant building is going to take a while.
If I may, I would like to point out that your review was of the whole place, more or less, not of an exhibition. Try that with any other major museum- I suggest the experience would be overwhelming, and disjointed. One last note: you zoomed in on one of the key challenges for the exhibits on the main floor: the programs of sustainability and specimen display are in opposition. This subject is worthy of a separate discourse, which I shall try to post shortly. Thanks again for your observations.


by Chris Andrews - February 03, 2009

Dale and Judy, many thanks for your feedback. I’d love to share our plans for modifying and enhancing the exhibits with you, especially since the craziness of opening is now – mostly – behind us.

Yes, the albino ’gator is my idea. Guest love him and he and his tank mate have some strong educational messages. Have you seen our two-headed snake specimen in the Steinhart?

Thanks for the review

by Gretchen Jennings - March 10, 2009

Hi, Dale and Judy, thanks for this review. The Spring 2009 issue of Exhibitionist, entitled “Green and Lean,” has a couple of articles that mention the new building and in particular the Africa Hall. I haven’t seen it yet, but both the building and its exhibitions seem to be stimulating lots of discussion, both about the complexity of its green messages, and also about the display of flora and fauna, both living and preserved. I have a feeling the profession is going to be talking about this for a long time. It will be interesting to read visitor studies of this space once they appear. Gretchen

Find something living and kill it

by Catherine Mcever - June 14, 2009

I had a weird experience back in the “Islands of Evolution” section. There’s an open structure that looks sort of like a car wash auto bay. The floor has a projection of a rainforest floor with lots of plants, and there are bugs skittering about in the projection including ants and what look like giant cockroaches.

A bunch of children were in there leaping about after the bugs and viciously stomping on them. Parents stood idly by at the open sides of the bay watching their kids. The child I was with found the whole thing too intimidating and violent and preferred to just watch rather than enter the fray.

Benumbed by the general Academy ambiance, I too just stood there watching the kids stomp bugs until it occurred to me that this couldn’t be right. I went over and read a rather lengthy label on the wall of the bay that explained that the exhibit was about bug baiting. You were supposed to wait until a piece of food appeared on the forest floor (coconut shard, banana, etc.) and then wait quietly by it until bugs appeared and started to eat the food. The label continued with an explanation about the bug baiting that scientists do in the process of studying bugs.

Talk about an exhibit gone wrong! Nobody was reading the explanation. The knee-jerk intuitive thing to do with the exhibit, which kids instantly seized upon, was stomping on and killing the bugs. None of the parents seemed to find any of this strange, despite the fact that the apparent message was: Go to the rainforest, spot something moving, and kill it.

I can’t figure out how they didn’t catch this in beta testing the exhibit or in formative evaluation.

These days

by Kathleen Mclean - June 14, 2009

it’s all about being clever. I don’t think they really care, as long as their visitors are having “fun.”

second (most of) those emotions

by Jason jay Stevens - May 27, 2010

I visited the Academy last week, and experienced similar mixed feelings.
I kept thinking about the Dallas Aquarium which, despite some crampiness—including a miserable wild cat in a tiny cage—doesn’t feel nearly as claustrophobic as the Academy’s glass globe, a comparison worthy of further examination.
The temporary exhibition space and it’s collection of the central exhibits for Extreme Mammals, is an out and out disaster, worthy of a separate review. I do, however, appreciate the way the “extreme” theme is tied in musuem-wide (so long as it’s temporary!).
I loved the maze of wonderful aquariums, and a number of the exhibits throughout the place. There’s a lot of great design, deserving note. And of course the roof is in a league of its own.
It’s important to challenge traditional forms, but it’s difficult to escape the fact that the African gallery, which is the most traditional natural history gallery here, is one of the best spaces in the Academy.
I’ll conclude by adding that the children I polled later, while visiting friends in the city, have nothing but wonderful things to say about the place. Jaded museum professionals be darned.

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