Monday, October 13, 2008

The New Academy

Yesterday we went to the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The academy itself isn't new, rather they've just had the grand opening of the new facility, which is in the location of the old facility, which they rebuilt while they were in an interim facility. Clear now?

Anyway, this was my first chance to see the new digs, as they opened while we were in Indonesia. My daughter and niece had gone to a pre-grand opening session (since we're members), so they had seen all the cool new stuff. But my wife and I were seeing it all for the first time, and surprisingly enough, I thought it lived up to the hype.

The facility is lovely. The green roof gets a lot of attention, but the whole thing just fits nicely into the space (much better than, say, the big ol' tower they tacked onto the DeYoung Museum across the concourse...). The exhibits are very modern, and traffic flows through them very well. This is a good thing, because all the hoopla has drawn tremendous crowds.

We didn't get to see everything, because it was too crowded. So we missed the new rainforest exhibit, which looks quite spectacular from outside (it's in a big glass sphere). Conceptually, it reminds me of the one at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. We also didn't get to see the new planetarium. We spent quite a bit of time in the new global warming exhibit, which was quite good, and a LOT of time in the evolution area, which highlights research from the Galapagos (including lots of marine stuff, which had obvious appeal) and Madagascar. There was plenty of interest for the adults and the child as well. And we went through the renovated African Hall fairly quickly, spending most time watching the penguins in their nice new habitat. They really seem to like all the attention.

But we most wanted to see the new Steinhart Aquarium. My wife and I both have great fondness for Steinhart from many visits as children. She also took fish classes there years ago. Needless to say, it is very different from its old incarnation, which was very old fashioned, very rectangular, and very much one tank after another.

The new exhibit flows in graceful curves (there are very few rectangular tanks, and most of those have shaped facades in front of them), and most of the exhibits are grouped thematically. Unfortunately, the traffic flows are not well thought out. There are dead ends and tight spots, which is completely unlike the flows upstairs in the exhibit halls. And once an hour the walls in the center gallery turn into a 360-degree immersive video thing about water. It's cool, but intrusive.

So I'm a little disappointed in the new aquarium. It's certainly nicer than the old one, and may grow on me when I get to see it with fewer people. All in all, it's nice to see the academy back where it belongs, in lovely Golden Gate Park. The facility had great promise, nice spaces, lots of old favorite exhibits spruced up and much improved. The cafeteria is quite nice, and the restaurant below it is getting great reviews.

I'm looking forward to many more visits. It's a terrific place.

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