San Francisco's Environmentally Friendly California Academy of Sciences

By Kristin Harrison
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 2008

Charles Darwin would be proud: Natural history museums have evolved.

The California Academy of Sciences, which reopened in September in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, represents a new era in institutions showcasing flora and fauna. Instead of stuffed specimens, pinned insects and creepy dioramas, the museum boasts more, well, natural attractions: a 2 1/2 -acre rooftop garden, the world's deepest indoor living coral reef and a tropical rain forest filled with birds, butterflies and reptiles.

Founded in 1853, the academy was the first scientific research institution in the American West. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged its buildings, and rather than reconstructing the old, its leaders eventually decamped to temporary quarters while they reinvented the institution's approach to natural history exhibits and the museum experience.

"Natural history museums must deal head-on with the issues of the 21st century," said Gregory Farrington, the museum's executive director. "Our goal is to create a new facility that will not only hold powerful exhibits but serve as one itself, inspiring visitors to conserve natural resources and help sustain the diversity of life on Earth."

When Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano visited the site in 1999, he took in the park's scenic surroundings (rolling hills dotted with tall eucalyptus trees) and sketched a simple line drawing. "It'll be as if we've draped part of the park over the exhibits below," he told the museum's board, according to Stephanie Stone, the museum's director of communications.

Some $488 million later, Piano's vision has literally come to life. To wit, the top-level garden is landscaped with 1.7 million plants and seven hillocks speckled with wildflowers; the Steinhart Aquarium holds an estimated 38,000 creatures, including zebra sharks and giant octopuses; and the African Hall is home to a colony of South African penguins that splash about in a 25,000-gallon pool.

Equally interesting are the academy's eco-credentials: In October, the museum earned the highest sustainability rating awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. Some of its green features include a solar canopy around the roof, which provides up to 10 percent of the building's energy needs, and recycled blue jeans that serve as wall insulation. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer sweeping views of the park and allow sunlight to stream in. On a bright day, the interior lighting automatically dims to adjust for the natural light, lowering electricity costs.

Most likely, though, visitors aren't coming for the reduced storm water runoff.

All of the attractions are contained under one roof, and it's hard to decide where to go first. My advice: See the first available planetarium show.

Housed in a 90-foot-high dome, the Morrison Planetarium tilts 30 degrees to echo Earth's angle, an incline that also prevents neck cramps. A 3-D film, "Fragile Planet," starts with scenes inside the museum and then zooms up, above the green-carpeted roof, above San Francisco and around the world for a bird's-eye view of such exotic destinations as Madagascar and Borneo, which are highlighted in exhibits at the museum. Then the camera flies out to the edges of the solar system. The visually stunning show comes with a motion-sickness warning, so consider Dramamine if you are susceptible.

After the galactic spectacle, return to Earth in "Rainforests of the World," a tropical paradise enclosed in a four-story glass dome. A ramp winds around palm and mahogany trees and past carnivorous pitcher plants and more than 30 species of orchids. If you're lucky, you might serve as a landing pad for a brightly colored butterfly or get buzzed by a bird, one of the 600 winged creatures that fly around freely. From the top, a glass elevator drops down to the "flooded forest." If you hear visitors shrieking outside the elevator doors, prepare to encounter the live anaconda, as fat and long as a fallen log. The snake-phobic can run for a tunnel that leads beneath a tank filled with massive catfish, piranhas, tiny tetras and other Amazonian fish.

One of the most popular features in the old academy was the African Hall, which opened in 1934, and the new museum keeps its legacy alive. In addition to 21 dioramas (dry-cleaned, thankfully) depicting scenes from the continent, the attraction now has such modern updates as plasma touch-screen displays and five live animal exhibits, including chameleons, tortoises and a white-throated monitor lizard.

One of Farrington's goals for the new museum was "to create an experience that inspires young people to choose careers in science." To that end, the "Islands of Evolution" exhibit encourages "when I grow up, I want to be a scientist" fantasies. For example, kids can net virtual butterflies with Wii gaming wands and feed virtual beetles with apple slices and lure them into traps.

For Homo sapiens feedings, the Academy Cafe and the upscale Moss Room stay true to the museum's eco-ethos, serving local organic produce, sustainable seafood and hormone-free meat. Lunch options in the cafe include seasonal soups, Vietnamese pho noodles and slow-cooked stews ($3-$12). Eat outside and sit beneath a 60-foot-long wire sculpture that depicts the topography of San Francisco Bay; it was created by Vietnam Veterans Memorial architect Maya Lin. The Moss Room, open for lunch and dinner, offers a menu that changes weekly (e.g., roasted breast of guinea fowl with almond couscous, $25, and tagiatelle with red-wine-braised duck sugo and pecorino, $21). Over a glass of biodynamic wine, guests can admire a 40-foot-tall wall covered in moss and an aquarium full of Southeast Asian fish -- alive, of course.

California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Dr., Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 415-379-8000, $24.95, including all shows and films; receive a $3 discount if you bike or take public transportation to the museum. Admission is free the third Wednesday of every month.

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