The New California Academy of Sciences

When my fellow homeschooler Kay invited us to ride along with her on a trip to visit the new California Academy of Sciences yesterday, I jumped at the chance. For years now, peering out from the De Young Museum’s observation tower, we’ve watched it being constructed, and it looked awesome. A huge science museum with mysterious domes and a grassy roof: we could only imagine what science museum wonders were being built inside. We had only experienced the museum in its temporary digs downtown, where it seemed modest and dry, but made up for that in the accessible scientists who were always jumping in to point out how seal flippers are like human hands; how sea stars reproduce; how moths differ from butterflies, and more.

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Although I was still thrilled to be able to see the new museum, my family and I were disappointed overall. On the one hand, it is an aesthetic marvel that uses light,  form, and technology for a unique experience. On the other hand, I found it over-crowded, over-priced, and off-puttingly eco-smug.

There were lines and crowds around everything in this museum, including the bathroom. Kay had joined the museum when it opened in November, and told me it had been even more crowded then: in fact, by 11 am, all the tickets too all the shows in the Planetarium had been distributed. On this day, we had better luck: Kay stood in a long line to get the tickets while the children and I hung out in the one uncrowded portion of the museum: the “climate change” section. There, you could calculate your carbon footprint based on how many miles you travel each year in your preferred mode of transport and by what you eat.

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In short, I’d be a little less of a burden on our great green Gaia planet if I became a hard-core organic vegan bicyclist. Of course, then I’d be so bitter that I’d become the sort of person who enjoys this sort of self-righteous eco-preciousness. I also found it a bit disingenuous: after all if the Academy of Science really believed what it preaches, it could just be a web site and turn its former location into an organic farm.

The aquarium was downstairs, and the fish (and related animals) were attractively displayed. It was crowded, but to be fair, it was all crowded with polite tourist- and museum-types, and the children had plenty of chances to admire the creatures as well as play in the touch tank. There were a few clever displays where waving your hand could bring up a fact, but I saw no-one actually bothering to read the facts after being impressed that a wave of the hand changed the display.

The best parts of the museum, that is the more classical ones, were off to the side in various ways. The penguins were in the Africa section which mostly had fresh (stuffed) animal from the African Savannah (in the mode of a good natural history museum. A few dinosaur and large animal skeletons were on display and mostly hanging from the ceiling. The albino alligator is in exactly the same display that an alligator used to be in in the original museum. The library and study, where you can get up close to actual musty specimens and directly quiz a scientist, is upstairs, and now includes a few puzzles and games for younger children, too.

Naturally, we had to see what we had been observing for years: the green, growing roof. Smartly enough, the museum put a deck on top so visitors can see it for themselves, as well as look over Golden Gate Park. On this day, a band (not the Golden Gate Park Brass Band) was playing in the music shell, which you could also see and hear from the top. Not so smartly, the growing roof suddenly struck me as immensely impractical: in the distance, I saw people weeding the roof, and I imagine it also needs to be watered and replanted and resodded now and again.

Kay persuaded us to go into the rainforest globe with her; I’d been resisting it because like so many other things, it required waiting in a line. But I’m glad she did, because it was only right I check out the museum completely my first time, and it had a delightful asethetic touch by having a bottom which also happened to be the top of an aquarium, which itself was a tunnel. The marvelous effect created was that it looked like museum visitors were below you in the bottom of an aquarium:

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Inside the rainforest globe, I was considerably less comfortable. Even though I have no respiratory problems, after a few minutes of being inside, I started feeling suffocated. I tried to relax; I told myself it was perhaps it was just the warm, misty air, but by the point I felt faint and black spots started forming before my eyes, I begged Kay to watch the kids and dashed for the elevator. My unfounded theory is that even the sacred glorious rainforest inside this globe wasn’t enough to process all the exhalations of thousands upon thousands of carbon-spewing humans, and without proper circulation with the outside, there was less oxygen in the air. Or it may have just been my imagination, because no one else seemed to be on the verge of passing out.

My impression overall was that it was the same museum it had always been, content-wise, except that now it was cloaked in a more stylish and far more expensive guise, with a heavy dollop of eco-smug added on. I also thought it was overpriced, though obviously the vast horde of visitors who arrive every day and pay, disagree. Most of the cultural/educational attractions in the area offer reciprocal admission with similar institutions at a certain level of membership: for instance, if we become members of the Exploratorium, we also enjoy free admission to OMSI and Chicago’s Museum of Technology and Industry; if I join the San Jose Museum of Art at the advocate level, the same membership also gets me into the Asian Art Museum, the Legion of Honor, or the Quilt Museum. If I join the San Francisco zoo, I can also visit most other zoos in the nation, but I think you’ve got the point. The only other such museum that doesn’t have reciprocity is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which classifies as a major tourist attraction, and is bigger than most nature museums, including the Academy of Sciences.

With the new building, the Academy of Sciences abolished reciprocity: in short, membership with them is only good with them, and no other museum’s membership will get you in there. At $25 per, adult admission ranks with the bigger Boston Science Museum ($23.50) though it’s slightly less than the Monterey Bay Aquarium ($30). And the Academy of Sciences’ family membership is no bargain either: it’s $159, whereas even the Monterey Bay Aquarium (whose eco-lecturing only goes so far as advising you what types of fish you oughtn’t buy) will let your whole family in for a year for $120. That said, as long as people are paying the ticket prices (and they obviously are), there’s nothing wrong with the Academy charging the price people are willing to pay. It wasn’t enough to sell me: I’ll continue to check out fish at other aquariums, natural history at the admittedly more run-down Oakland Museum or the irregularly-available University of California, Berkeley, and live animals at zoos. Perhaps the hype will die down and the Academy will go back to being the regular science museum it used to be; or it will become (or should I say, continue to be?) an international destination, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s fine either way, but I’m only buying into the former.

Kay wanted to let the children run off some energy before we drove home, so I directed us to the blue playground, which is semi-hidden off the concourse, under two underpasses:

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Kelly liked the playground best of all, because she got to play with babies and found a nickel buried in the sand. I plan to go back to Golden Gate Park more often again, even if that’ll be for its many other pleasures, like the De Young Museum, Stowe Lake, and the Botanical Gardens.

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