museum tourist: california academy of sciences

I’d been to the Cal Academy in San Francisco once or twice before, but it was about a decade ago, and I didn’t remember much other than a bunch of fish. So I went into this expecting your basic natural history museum experience, which after a year of examining natural history museums I can boil down to two elements: stuffed animals and rocks.

I got half of that. They do have a hall of dead stuffed mammals – with, bonus, live penguins. But rocks were sorely lacking. There was a dinosaur in the entrance hall and an exhibit on climate change, but basically, this is a museum about biology. Which is fine. I like biology. In fact, it’s my favorite. But I was disappointed they didn’t have a broader reach.

Oh, and there’s a planetarium, but since you have to pick up special passes that run out if you want to see a planetarium show, I don’t think it really counts. And actually I didn’t even know I was entitled to one of those tickets until just now, when I read it on the website – I assumed they cost extra. Nice job with the communications, Cal Academy.

This looks how I always imagined the moon would look if it weren’t lame and dusty and gray:

But it’s not some kind of futuristic outer space pod station thing, it’s the roof of the museum. The Cal Academy has gotten a lot of attention for their “living roof” with native plants – unlike the imported European grasses that cover California’s hillsides, these don’t turn brown in summer. The domes cover the planetarium and the rainforest exhibit, and the hatches can be raised for ventilation. Read about some of the building’s green features in this cool graphic from Wired. The roof was my favorite part of the museum – I made a second stop up there before we left.

So here’s what it looks like underneath one of those domes:

That’s a rainforest in a globe. You have to go through multiple doors, like an airlock, to make darn sure you’re not releasing any of the rainforest denizens into the California environment. Inside are trees, vines, lots of cute chirpy birds, a macaw, butterflies, bromeliads, and fish. When you’re done winding your way up through the ramps in the rainforest, you take an elevator down below the floor, to the basement aquarium – including the fish you were looking down on moments before:

Several of the aquaria are open at the top, so from the ground level, you can also look down on a coral reef and an aquarium that represents the California coast.

In honor of the holiday (this was December 20th) there were several special displays – a little portable planetarium with a show about the northern lights, some stuffed polar animals, and these two bored-looking reindeer:

You’ll be glad to know the reindeer poop was being used to fertilize the plants in nearby Rhododendron Dell. The museum sits in the middle of Golden Gate Park.

So, I enjoyed it. Particularly the roof. But I was shocked by the $30 ticket price,  the highest I’ve paid in my museum tourist expeditions. Of course, I’m spoiled by the Smithsonian, where admission is free. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, you can pay $32 for admission and all the extras – special exhibits, like the butterflies, IMAX movies, and so on. But you also had the option of paying $16 (or less – it’s a suggested donation) to see the permanent exhibitions, which includes tons of rocks, dinosaurs, and other amazing stuff.

And in any case, I do wish they’d mentioned that my ticket covered a planetarium show. Apparently I’m still irritated about that.

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One Response to museum tourist: california academy of sciences

  1. Bill R. says:

    Always intriguing and succinctly told, Helen!