Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Sojourn to San Francisco (pt. 1)

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California Academy of Sciences

This cute baby giraffe draws you in…to the gift shop

Recently I took a trip north to San Francisco and of course I visited a few museums.  The next few installments of Exhibition Inquisition are going to be about museums in Norcal, this is a way to gradually wean you off of Los Angeles reviews, as I will be moving to Chicago in fall.  Also notice to Chicago: here I come.

Renzo's red

I didn’t just visit art museums during my trip north, but also visited the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.  I had been to the academy numerous times as a child, but hadn’t been since the Renzo Piano renovation had opened.  Of course Renzo Piano is also the architect of the BCAM at LACMA, and the soon-to-be-opened Resnick Pavilion, also at LACMA.  The architectural comparisons are fairly obvious: dominant cement and glass materials punctuated with accents of firetruck red.  The elevator at the Academy is of a twin of the one at LACMA.  Other than the obvious the Piano’s process of acknowledging the function and purpose of the building, and allowing that to dictate the form and design of the building.  Critics aside, BCAM operates as it was supposed to: a white cube for the display of contemporary art.  The Resnick Pavilion will do the same: a warehouse for creating temporary spaces for temporary exhibitions.  The Academy of Sciences works the same way.

Piano sketch, see the domes and the roof, like a series of hills, like San Francisco

The building is dominated by two large spheres (one is a planetarium, and one holds an indoor rainforest) whose forms are embraced by the roof of the building.  This can be seen in the architectural sketch by Piano.  The entry space is dominated by a large T-Rex skeleton.  I thought it was noteworthy that even in this contemporary space that looks nothing like a traditional museum, some vestiges were left, like the dinosaur skeletons being the first thing one see as they enter.

Some traditions, like T-Rex, are unavoidable

Behind this was an open air piazza that is nestled in-between the two orbs.  Around the two large spheres is water; a visitor has to go below ground level to understand that the water goes many feet below and is actually the top of several large aquarium tanks.  The building is a shrine to the sciences full of specimens and takes every opportunity to educate.  Literally no space is left unoccupied by something thought-provoking or beautiful.

I can’t believe Claude is still alive!

Old favorites are still around.  The biggest celebrity of the academy is the extremely rare albino alligator named Claude.  I remember seeing this baby both at the original academy and at the San Francisco Zoo at one point in time.  The old white guy was return to an enclosure that is fairly similar to the original.  Around the top of the case is a fairly tacky railing made up of bronze sea horses.  The sea horses are one of the details from the original building that were left intact.  A docent of the Academy (who knew my father, because my father knows literally everyone in the Bay Area) told me that his father was the artist who created the sea horses.

They’re not tacky, they’re classic

Below ground level was the aquarium space, which I have to say was not my favorite.  Strikingly similar to the Pardo-designed display cases in LACMA’s Pre-Columbian galleries, were some smaller sized tanks filled with various species.

These cases did nothing for this seadragon’s figure

Curvatious glass forms refracted the light and distorted the forms of the sea creatures within giving them a freakish fun-house mirror effect.  These smaller cases were accompanied by the large tanks full of many schools of fish, which were separated into several climates and locations.

Deep blue sea, but no sharks in this tank

I got thirsty while on the aquarium level and was amazed to find that even the act of drinking from the water fountain had been turned into an educational experience.  The Academy took this moment to inform me about the benefits of tap water versus bottled water.  This was similar to the moment I had when throwing away a piece of gum, where I was greeted with information about recycling which was mounted on the various trash and recycling cans.

Do you know where that gum wrapper is going to end up?—I do.

Back upstairs are the more traditional displays of taxidermied animals, mostly mammals from Africa.  Some oldies are still goodies.  I was absolutely astounded by the amount of detail that had executed in these display cases, in one scene flora surround the fauna but are given as much attention, including a beetle that seemingly meanders across a flower.

I hope someone got paid a lot of money for thinking about that beetle

The tableaus of frozen wildlife were mixed with staggered cases of live specimens and cases displaying only skeletons.  At the end of the hall was the ever popular penguin display, which gets crowded several times a day during feedings.  The coffered ceiling of the mammal hall had been preserved much like the seahorse balcony.  The ceiling had been livened with a coat of fresh white paint, but the arched barrel vault remained.

Coffered ceilings really get me going

Outside of the mammal hall is a crowded space full of smaller displays covering an array of topics including evolution and the Galapagos Islands.  One space that was getting a lot of attention from the kids was a media center that just played newsworthy pieces on several gigantic screens.  The media space was set in front of an audience of mostly empty chairs; this seemed to be the place the grandparents took a quick break from the screaming masses.

Grandparent zone

Next it was time to explore the rainforest dome.  This portion of the visit required waiting in line as only so many visitors are allowed in the climate controlled dome at once.  I was wearing a jacket and scarf the whole day at the museum, but quickly removed them once inside the rainforest dome.  Inside is a whole different world, you enter at the ground level and slowly work your way up so that you can experience the different sub-environments.  Birds and butterflies perch and swoop through the air all around the dome.

Visit just for this, because really, when is the next time you’re going to be in an Ecuadorian rainforest?

Then it was time for the planetarium show, which took place inside the other dome.  The curved space was all encompassing and would have been a very serious experience had the documentary movie not been narrated by Whoopi Goldberg.  I have to say I did prefer Whoopi to Oprah on the Life series, but that is mostly because whenever Oprah talked about mating I got creeped out.

Is the YOU Whoopi!?

The visit wasn’t over until we went to the roof of the building. Yes the roof looks like the set for the teletubbies show, but it’s actually a very practical and environmentally sound usage of a roof.  I can’t even begin to explain how amazing this roof is, but there is a lot to say and the Academy tells you most of the information on placards surrounding the accessible portion of roof.

No, Tinky Winky does not live here

All in all the new Academy of Sciences was everything I hoped it would be, so education, and yet so full of wonderful surprises.  The building and its architecture makes an exclamation point to the statements within about recycling, global warming, and climate change.  Even though I tried to see everything in one day, I’m sure each time I go back I will see and learn something new.  Below is a slide show of additional photos, since I feel like I couldn’t explain everything in this one post.

– H.I.

P.S. How could I almost forget about the actual art installation at the Academy?!  A few years back the De Young Museum, across the way from the Academy, organized a show of Maya Lin’s artworks.  Linn who is most famous for the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. works in a variety of media.  One of the last works in that exhibition, called Systematic Landscapes, were the preparatory sketches and designs for an artwork that was going to be installed at the Academy of Sciences once it reopened.

Understated work of art

This work is called Where the Land Meets the Sea, and it hangs outside the Academy.  The works is made up of a grid of seemingly randomly bent and twisted wires.  The work actually is an exaggerated topographic map of a portion of the San Francisco Bay.  Some of the high and low points have distinguishable references, like Angel Island.  This artwork is simultaneously aesthetically beautiful, and would be appreciated without knowing what it represents or what inspired it, but upon further self-driven exploration is really an education tool.  Job well done Academy of Sciences!

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