The California Academy of Sciences is a natural history museum in San Francisco, California, that is among the largest museums of natural history in the world, housing over 26 million specimens. The Academy began in 1853 as a learned society and still carries out a large amount of original research, with exhibits and education becoming significant endeavors of the museum during the 20th century.
The California Academy of Sciences is a renowned scientific and educational institution dedicated to exploring, explaining, and sustaining life on Earth. The Academy’s programs of research, education, and public engagement are cause for optimism in urgent times, helping people of all ages to hone science-literate brains and the passion to protect biodiversity. In our day-to-day work and overarching goals, we’re guided by a mission statement as profound as it is simple: to Explore, Explain, and Sustain life on Earth.
The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to understand two of the most important topics of our time: the nature and sustainability of life on Earth. It’s home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and a collection of nearly 46 million scientific specimens—one of the largest and most diverse in the world.
Through expeditions around the globe and investigations in the lab, the Institute’s scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for sustaining them into the future. With innovative collaborations and public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical sustainability and conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and help citizens become responsible stewards of our planet.
The Academy is an innovative leader in efforts to increase scientific and environmental literacy worldwide. Our science educators, highly trained docents, and scientists engage people of all ages—both here in California and around the world—in the scientific concepts and issues that will shape our future.
Educators host teacher workshops, create classroom materials, and facilitate field trips year-round to inspire the next generation of scientists. Daily museum programs, innovative exhibits, digital media offerings, and science visualization productions bring the natural world to life for tens of thousands of learners of all ages each year.
Completely rebuilt in 2008, the building covers 400,000 square feet (37,000 square metres) and is among the newest natural history museums in the United States. The primary building in Golden Gate Park reopened on September 27, 2008.
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 US. 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 direction 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 19th century, when opportunities for women in the sciences were limited, and often, those that existed were restricted to menial cataloging and calculation work. In 1892, Alice Eastwood, a botanist, was hired by the Academy and worked there until she retired in 1949. She created the collection of rare plants, which was saved when the Academy was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake
The Academy’s first official museum opened in 1874 at the corner of California and Dupont Streets (now Grant Avenue) in what is now 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 19th-century San Francisco real estate mogul, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.
However only fifteen years later, the Market Street facility fell victim to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and three days of fire, which also wiped out all but a wheelbarrow full 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. Fortunately, the 1905-1906 scientific collecting expedition to the Galápagos Islands (the first of several sponsored by the academy to the archipelago) already was underway, and it returned seven months later, providing replacement collections for those lost.
Golden Gate Park site
In 1916, 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 US 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.
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 traditional specimen collections, entrusting them to the Academy and leading to a rapid growth of the Academy’s holdings.
In 1969, another new building, Cowell Hall, was added to the site. In 1976, several new galleries were opened, and the following year, in 1977, the “fish roundabout” was constructed.
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 and Mineral Hall, a section on Earthquakes, and a Gary Larson exhibit.
Academy scientists, under the Academy’s Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability, conduct systematic and conservation research in several different fields, including anthropology, marine biology, botany, entomology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, mammalogy, ornithology, geology, and 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 researchers study life around the world: a 2011 expedition to the Philippines discovered an estimated 300 species new to science. The Academy publishes the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, as well as Occasional Papers, Memoirs, and Special Publications.
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.
Construction began on the new $500 million 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 (nearly two kilometers) long, and although over 15,000 people were admitted, several thousands more had to be turned away.
Environmental design of new building
The design architect for the museum replacement project was Renzo Piano. His design was awarded the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Award for Excellence for the Americas region in 2008, as well as the Holcim Award Silver for sustainable construction projects in the North America region in 2005. 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”.
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. 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 and on the National Geographic Channel Man-Made series in July 2008.
The new building includes an array of environmentally friendly features.
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 hectare)
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
The California Academy of Science green roof has several environmentally friendly features, as well as sustainable design. Renzo Piano was inspired by seven major hills of San Francisco, which typically refers to: Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Rincon Hill, Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks and Mount Davidson. The living green roof was planted with 1.7 million California native plants. The museum’s central piazza lies beneath a massive glass ceiling in the roof, which opens to allow cool night air to flow into the building below; by using this kind of natural ventilation instead of air conditioning to regulate interior temperature, the building becomes more energy efficient. Renzo Piano and SWA Group won the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Award in design in 2009.
View of the Amazonian flooded forest in the rainforest exhibit. Arapaima, arowana, catfish, pacus, cichlids and other fish species can be seen from a submerged acrylic tunnel.
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. The main venues of the museum include the following:
Kimball Natural History Museum – generally encompasses the entire museum outside the planetarium, rainforest, and aquarium, and comprises Africa Hall (the Academy’s oldest running exhibit), the East Wing (which includes the Foulcault pendulum, also a carry-over exhibit from the older, pre-2008 renovation of the Academy), the West Wing (which currently houses several geophysical exhibits), the science “Project Lab” which features real, live scientists working on real, live research projects and who can be viewed doing their work from outside the lab by public visitors, as well as several smaller exhibits distributed throughout the remainder of the Academy building.
Morrison Planetarium – features the world’s largest completely digital planetarium dome measuring in at 27.5 metres (90 ft.) in diameter with a 23-metre (75-foot) diameter screen
Rainforests of the World – rainforest exhibit enclosed in a 90-foot (27 m) glass dome
Steinhart Aquarium – includes exhibits of coral reef, tidepool, and swamp habitats; as well as a colony of African penguins
Besides its famous museum programs, the California Academy of Sciences offers many educational and community outreach programs to members of the public at large.