California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences
California Academy of Sciences
Established 1853
Location Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California, USA
Type Natural History
Visitor figures Over 1 million visits annually
Director Gregory C. Farrington

The California Academy of Sciences is among the largest museums of natural history in the world. The academy began in 1853 as a learned society and still carries out a large amount of original research,[1] with exhibits[2] and education[3] becoming significant endeavors of the museum during the twentieth century.

Completely rebuilt in 2008, the building totals 400,000 square feet and is among the newest natural history museums in the United States. The primary building in Golden Gate Park reopened on September 27, 2008.


Public education

Sambava Tomato Frog

Prior to being replaced, the old academy building attracted approximately half a million visitors each year. As has been the case from the start, the main thrust of the exhibits is natural history. As such, the public areas of the academy are divided into three general areas.

  • Steinhart Aquarium - which takes up most of the basement area, as well as a four-story dome that emulates a rainforest.[4]
  • Morrison Planetarium - which is devoted to things astronomical.
  • Kimball Natural History Museum - which, in addition to its African Hall and a Foucault pendulum, includes a variety of changing displays covering a variety of subjects.


The academy conducts research in numerous fields, largely, but not exclusively, in anthropology, marine biology, botany, entomology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, mammalogy, and ornithology, all branches of biology.

Geological research also has a long history at the academy, with a concentration on paleontology. There also is a strong emphasis on environmental concerns, with all the various departments collaborating closely to focus on systematic biology and biodiversity.


Academy of Sciences in 2003, two years before reconstruction began

The California Academy of Natural Sciences was founded in 1853, only three years after California joined the United States, becoming the first society of its kind in the Western U.S. Its stated aim was to undertake "a thorough systematic survey of every portion of the State and the collection of a cabinet of her rare and rich productions". It was renamed as the more inclusive California Academy of Sciences in 1868.

The academy had a forward-thinking approach to the involvement of women in science, passing a resolution in its first year of existence that the members "highly approve of the aid of females in every department of natural science, and invite their cooperation." This policy led to several women being hired into professional positions as botanists, entomologists, and other occupations during the nineteenth century, when opportunities for women in the sciences were limited, and often, those that existed were restricted to menial cataloging and calculation work.

The academy's first official museum opened in 1874 at the corner of California and Dupont Streets (now Grant Avenue) in what now is Chinatown, and drew up to 80,000 visitors a year. To accommodate its increasing popularity, the academy moved to a new and larger building on Market Street in 1891, funded by the legacy of James Lick, a nineteenth century San Francisco real estate mogul, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Only fifteen years later, however, the Market Street facility fell victim to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which also wiped out large swathes of the academy's library and specimen collections. In the widespread destruction occurring in the aftermath of the quake, academy curators and staffers only were able to retrieve a single cart of materials, including academy minute books, membership records, and 2,000 type specimens.[5] Fortunately, an expedition to the Galápagos Islands (the first of several sponsored by the academy) already was underway, and it returned seven months later, instantly providing replacement collections for those lost.

It was not until 1916 that the Academy moved to the North American Hall of Birds and Mammals in Golden Gate Park, the first building on the site that was to become its permanent home. In 1923, the Steinhart Aquarium was added, followed in 1934 by the Simson African Hall.

During World War II, the academy contributed to the American war effort by using its workshop facilities to repair optical and navigational equipment for United States Navy ships; San Francisco was a major port for the Pacific War arena.

The post-war years saw a flurry of new construction on the site; the Science Hall was added in 1951, followed by the Morrison Planetarium in 1952. The Morrison Planetarium was the seventh major planetarium to open in the United States and featured a one-of-a-kind star projector, built by academy staff members (in part using the expertise gained doing the optical work for the U.S. Navy during World War II).

The Academy Projector produced a remarkably natural-looking star field. It projected irregularly shaped stars, rather than the circular stars projected by many optical star projectors. The irregular shapes were created by placing variously-sized grains of silicon carbide onto the glass star plates by hand, then aluminizing the plates, and brushing away the silicon carbide grains.

Poster for 1985 exhibition at the academy that ran from July 1 to November 3 and was used as a set for the film "Howard the Duck"

In 1959, the Malliard Library, Eastwood Hall of Botany, and Livermore Room all were added. Throughout the 1960s, universities concentrating on the new field of molecular biology divested themselves of their specimen collections, entrusting them to the academy and leading to a rapid growth of the academy's holdings.

1969 saw another new building, Cowell Hall, added to the site. In 1976 several new galleries were opened, and the following year saw the construction of the "fish roundabout".

In 1985, Howard the Duck was filmed using the museum; the exhibition of Jim Gary's Twentieth Century Dinosaurs was featured prominently in the movie.

Prior to the old building being torn down in 2005, there was a Life through Time gallery, housing a large display on evolution and paleontology. There was a Gem & Mineral Hall, a section on Earthquakes, and a Gary Larson exhibit as well.

Earthquake damage and new building

The new building on opening day

The academy buildings were damaged significantly in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Subsequently, the Bird Hall building was closed to ensure public safety. The inadequately engineered Steinhart Aquarium suffered dramatic seismic damage from the 1989 earthquake as well.

As plans were made to repair the damage and make the buildings seismically stable, it was realized that a considerable amount of work would be needed to bring the buildings up to modern standards. This led to the idea of giving the academy a complete overhaul, thus motivating the closing of the main site.

A rare albino American alligator named Claude

Construction began on the new $500 million dollar building on September 12, 2005, while the exhibits were moved to 875 Howard Street for a temporary museum.

The academy reopened with a free day on September 27, 2008. For most of the day the line for admittance was over a mile long, and although over 15,000 people were admitted, several thousands more had to be turned away.[6] Admission to the Academy is free the third Wednesday of each month, and there also are "San Francisco Neighborhood Free Days" based on postal code.[7]

New building's environmental design

The design architect for the museum replacement project was Renzo Piano. His design was given the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Award for Excellence: The Americas in 2008, considered the land use industry’s most prestigious recognition program,[8] and it won the Holcim Award Silver for sustainable construction projects for the of region North America in 2005.[9] One critic praised the building as a "blazingly uncynical embrace of the Enlightenment values of truth and reason" and a "comforting reminder of the civilizing function of great art in a barbaric age."[10]

The new building is at the forefront of environmentally-friendly design, in keeping with the academy's focus on ecological concerns and environmental sustainability. It received Platinum certification under the LEED program.[11] As a result of its environmentally-friendly design and other unique features, this project was featured on the Discovery Channel Extreme Engineering series in 2006[12] and on the National Geographic Channel Man-Made series in July 2008.[13]

The new building includes a remarkable array of environmentally-friendly features.[14][15]

  • Produces 50 percent less waste water than previously
  • Recycles rainwater for irrigation
  • Uses 60,000 photovoltaic cells
  • Supports a green roof with an area of 2.5 acres (1.0 ha)
  • Uses natural lighting in 90 percent of occupied spaces
  • Was constructed of over 20,000 cubic yards (15,000 m3) of recycled concrete
  • Construction includes 11 million pounds (5,000 t) of recycled steel
  • Wall insulation made from scraps of recycled denim

Removed features of new building

  • Insect room
  • Fish roundabout
  • Far Side cartoons
  • Crystal and mineral hall
  • California animals diorama hall including plankton display and sea lion display
  • Earthquake simulator
  • Reptile and amphibian displays in central court
  • Space exhibitions
  • Dinosaur forest display with velociraptors
  • Dinosaur holograms
  • Black pilot whale fountain
  • Ancient seas diorama


Since February 12, 2009,[16] the academy hosts a NightLife event every Thursday night, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., open to adults aged 21 and older. In addition to the regular snacks, alcoholic beverages are served, the evenings are occasionally themed with guests and vendors and music is played throughout the event.

See also


  1. ^ "Research". California Academy of Sciences. 
  2. ^ "Exhibits". California Academy of Sciences. 
  3. ^ "Education". California Academy of Sciences. 
  4. ^ "Rainforests of the World". California Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 
  5. ^ "A Look at the Cal Academy of Sciences of 1891-1906". Bearings. Retrieved 2009-07-19. 
  6. ^ Perlman, David (28 September 2008). "Mile-long line for Academy of Sciences opening". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 
  7. ^ "Academy Free Days". California Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 
  8. ^ "AwardsAndCompetitions". Urban Land Institute. Retrieved 20 July 2009. 
  9. ^ Rochon, Lisa (6 October 2005). "Quelle surprise! Uber-building shutout; A low-income housing project in Montreal has won a prestigious prize". The Globe and Mail (Toronto): p. R3. 
  10. ^ Ouroussoff, Nicolai (23 September 2008). "A Building That Blooms and Grows, Balancing Nature and Civilization". The New York Times. 
  11. ^ "New California Academy of Sciences Receives Highest Possible Rating from U.S. Green Building Council: LEED Platinum" (Press release). California Academy of Sciences. 2008-10-08. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 
  12. ^ "California Academy of Sciences". Extreme Engineering. Discovery Channel. 2006-11-08. No. 5, season 5.
  13. ^ "Hi-Tech Museum". Man-Made. National Geographic Channel. 2008-07-17. No. 11, season 1.
  14. ^ Simons, Eric (September/October 2008). "Concrete and strawberries". California Magazine (University of California Alumni Association): 52–53. 
  15. ^ Chino, Mike (2008-09-22). "The New Green California Academy of Sciences Unveiled!". Inhabit. 

Further reading

External links

Coordinates: 37°46′12″N 122°27′59″W / 37.770100°N 122.466407°W / 37.770100; -122.466407

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