At 150, Academy on the move
Staff to relocate millions of items
San Francisco Chronicle [www.sfgate.com]
February 18, 2003
San Francisco—Leave it to a team of scientists to figure out how to appear to move in opposite directions at the same time.
That is what the beautiful minds at the California Academy of Sciences will begin doing next month, when they unveil a special exhibit celebrating the institution’s 150th anniversary in San Francisco. The exhibit will kick off a year of shows and festivities at the science museum in Golden Gate Park, culminating in a festival this fall that will be part street fair, part live science show.
It’s the kind of hands-on approach that has made the academy one of the most popular educational centers in the Bay Area and one of the most successful scientific research institutes in the country. While other cultural attractions have gone the way of the woolly mammoth, the academy has rumbled through time to become one of the 10 largest natural history museums in the world.
The academy has expanded so much that it has actually outgrown its present site in the park, which is still suffering the scars from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. So this year’s anniversary exhibit is designed to walk the public through the academy’s storied past while pointing to what it hopes will be a star-bright future—reminding people that at the end of this year the academy will be leaving its longtime home for temporary headquarters South of Market.
Any institution that can last a century and a half in San Francisco, surviving earthquakes, fires and the political conflagrations for which the city is famous, should be able to manage a trek across town. But this is no ordinary move—unless you know of somebody else who is planning to transport 5 million plant specimens and 13 million animal specimens.
“I feel like one of the old variety shows where you see the guy holding all these spinning plates on long sticks,” said Patrick Kociolek, the academy’s executive director. “Right now we’re running between all those long sticks.”
For those who have been hibernating this winter, the academy announced last year that it is rebuilding its museum in the park, replacing it with a dazzling structure designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano that will, appropriately enough, include a living “green” roof. The redesign will include a new Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium and modern exhibition spaces.
But construction for the new $370 million museum, which will begin in early 2004, means that the science center must relocate for a time. So the academy will move to a new building at 875 Howard St. (between 4th and 5th) at the end of the year, with the hopes of opening its temporary quarters on Jan. 1.
And while the academy’s focus will always be science education, the move will primarily involve math, with a numbing amount of numbers involved in the relocation.
The move will take place five days a week for four months. The pipeline from the ocean that runs under Golden Gate Park to fill the aquarium tanks will be turned off and 5,000 gallons of saltwater will have to be trucked into the new facility each week.
Eight research departments—anthropology, botany, entomology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, mammalogy and ornithology—will be packing rare collections, hundreds of thousands of eggs, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Nearly 500,000 delicate glass containers must be stored and shipped, as well as rare specimens currently filling some 75,000 shelves at the academy.
Researchers estimate that it will take the live animals being moved to Howard Street at least a month to get acclimated to their new surroundings. It may take the humans considerably longer.
One advantage of the temporary home is that it will give academy officials and visitors a few years to get used to the notion that the museum will never look the same. And for the 100 million people that have passed through its doors over the years, a new look may encourage a whole flock of new visitors and exhibition concepts.
“The thing about museums is that many people see them as not changing,” Kociolek said. “Sometimes people stop going because they think they’ve seen it all. But our challenge is to show that science is dynamic, constantly changing.
“And we need to help people understand that the millions of specimens and objects here were collected by our own people, that there are great stories behind them and the stories are all ours.”
In a city where the government leaders like to dabble in acts of social Darwinism, it’s heartening to know that there are still places that can evolve naturally and change with the times. When the new academy opens in 2008, it will feature modernized labs and classrooms for science teaching, and research areas that have long been closed to the public will be open to view.
For all the fancy rain forest exhibits and dinosaur attractions that draw visitors, the re-emphasis on science education may be the most important because of the glaring disconnect between research expertise and teaching. California may have one of the world’s great science academies but its school children rank among the worst in science scores, according to studies by the National Assessment of Education Progress.
That’s a great divide that won’t be bridged by new buildings, but it should help sharpen the focus for the academy’s mission no matter where it’s located in the next few years.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle