The California Academy of Sciences, as it now stands, is a big and busy place. On a typical day it teems with visitors, most of whom seem to be enjoying themselves.
In the midst of all that space and light and color, I suspect that most visitors don’t realize how much of that space is basically wasted – soaring ceilings that go up to nowhere – or how many of the exhibits are pale shadows of what the Academy had before it was remodeled to such fanfare several years ago.
Remembering the old Academy, I can’t help compare these cheesy, cheap biology exhibits to the old Life Through Time installation, which was immersive, engaging, and far more modern than any current exhibition.
The new Academy has vast floor space given over to static signage and rudimentary touch exhibits. The old Academy was stuffed with curiosities, cleverly designed and displayed. Its huge collections were readily accessible to anyone who was interested.
What’s really sad are the physical remnants of the old Academy that the new one is built around. The old Reptile and Amphibian Swamp, which featured a number of live alligators and crocodiles, now contains one forlorn albino alligator.
The railing, with its seahorse motif and bronze starfish atop the bannister, is a reminder of the old-fashioned skilled handiwork and well-thought-out whimsical design elements that were everywhere in the old building.
The African Hall is pretty much as it was – a quiet, dark, and contemplative space that also serves as a reminder of an earlier age of museums, when naturalists “collected” (shot and killed) animals, which were then mounted in dioramas with great skill and artistry. What puzzles me is why the Academy chose to keep its African Hall but not Wild California, an equivalent space filled with evocative dioramas of California wildlife. For better or worse, they don’t make exhibitions like that anymore; once Wild California was dismounted and destroyed, it was gone forever.
Nonetheless, the new Academy is wildly popular, with lines out the front door on weekends. Most visitors are from out of town, I think – another difference from the old Academy, which was one of those beloved institutions where kids who were taken there grew up and them brought their own kids in turn. The new Academy substitutes zing and flash for substance and love. Ultimately, there’s not that much there, which is a loss for us all.