Sunday, April 1, 2012

A is for Academy of Sciences

Image credit: Cal Academy of Sciences Research Archives
Welcome to the A-Z Challenge Entry for A on the Museum of Joy! This month, I'll be writing about 26 inspirations for the Museum of Joy, one for every letter of the alphabet. To be fair, this entry is actually about the California Academy of Sciences, but I've got something else lined up for letter C, and living in San Francisco there's no need to refer to what state you're in. When I was a kid, it was just The Museum with Dinosaurs.

My family moved to San Francisco just before I turned 2 and just after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. We were pretty poor, apparently, although I had no idea because I was a toddler and we lived at the edge of Golden Gate Park, which is still one of the coolest places in the world that a kid can possibly have at her doorstep. (Although the Inner Sunset, our neighborhood, is a whole bunch ritzier now, there still remains a shop that was for me a magical cave at the age of 2, which we called The Badge Shop because it sold dozens of tiny enameled pins and other treasures. It's really called "Oriental Import Co" or something, and it looks exactly the same. You can still buy a really great pin for five bucks, too.) Back then, a member ship at the Academy of Sciences was affordable. As this article says, a family membership was $25 in 1996, and this is even earlier. Now it's $500. Poor kids like me don't get to go any more, but then there's a lot less to see these days....

Some of my very earliest memories are of the Academy of Sciences. When I was 5 I wanted to be a paleontologist because they had this incredible exhibit that included huge forested dioramas full of dinosaurs and giant centipedes and whatnot, as well as a dinky little video about paleontologists at work with a catchy tune that went "Diggin' up bones, diggin' up bones, diggin' 'em up and takin' 'em home..." I mean, what, what, could be a cooler job?! There were a million other things, of course -- an alligator pit in the middle of a beautiful white room full of light and lined all around with tiny glass boxes housing amphibians in miniature lush swamps and terrariums, a hall full of bones, a dim dark blue glass roundabout where fish swam past in an endless aquamarine, a whole section of cases displaying gemstones and fascinating minerals, a huge pendulum that slowly knocked over little pegs, and a fantastic earthquake exhibit with a shaker table, a little stand you got into that displayed old old footage of San Francisco and wobbled you about like a real earthquake...listen, when the Academy closed in 2005 for earthquake retrofitting, I dreamed about it. I dreamed that I was wandering through a temporary display of the Touch Tank, a great tidepool display full of starfish you could pick up (another formative experience, the cold, slimy, stony texture of those starfish - it's been maybe 15 years since I held one, but I know exactly what it feels like.) I dreamed about it reopening ever more magnificent.

It didn't. When I went back a few months after its reopening, I was horrified. The dinosaurs were gone. The gems were gone. The Hall of Bones was gone. The beautiful room of amphibians was gone. The pendulum was gone. There was, instead, a Biosphere, which is a nice walk full of pretty birds and butterflies, and a Living Roof, which is cool I guess, and a bunch of glass boxes and flat-screen TVs. And it cost me, a broke college student, $24.95 to see my childhood emptied out.

Image credit: Ingrid Taylar
Now for the weird part. I really wanted to share with you some pictures of the amazing exhibits from my childhood - maybe, I thought, if you can't GO there any more, at least a picture coupled with some vivid recollection would give a feel. But there seems to be no photographic record whatsoever that these things even existed. I tried every combination of "california academy of sciences" and "dinosaurs," "dinosaur exhibit," "hall of dinosaurs," "deinonychus" (my favorite dinosaur as a kid, also known as the velociraptor, of Jurassic Park fame) and I come up with nothing: the same pictures of the new museum, over and over. It wasn't until I hunted down a floor plan of the old building, above, that I remembered the name of the exhibit: Life Through Time! of course! ...but googling that, alas, also resulted in nothing. Same with the Hall of Skulls and the old amphibian display and the shaker table. You can still find some pictures of gems and things, and you can see the new Foucault's Pendulum, in its shiny new home among the big displays of stuff-stuck-to-the-wall. But in the old Academy, the pendulum was housed in a dark room full of stuff about space -- and it was dark, cavernous, magical and weird, full of dim cosmic dust and a kind of hollow darkness that informed my dreams for years and years. It felt cool in there. If I was a kid in the room where the new pendulum was housed, I would be bored as shit and that's the truth. (Call me a fogey, but there's nothing nifty about bright lights on wall placards - it looks like an upscale art gallery, fer cryin' out loud. The old place was spooky. It was full of stuff. It was numinous. Also, you know what kids don't give two hoots about? Signs on walls. You know what kids clamor to see over and over? Terrifying dinosaurs leaping out of the fucking woods.)

Underwater Diversity Exhibit. Photo credit:
I can't shake the feeling that somehow, these pictures have been purposefully eradicated -- as if some powers-that-be didn't want me to remember it right. In fact, searching for a picture of the Life Through Time exhibit before I found it on the map and figured out what it was called, I wondered if I'd actually imagined the whole thing. I called up my dad and asked him to describe the dinosaurs. "What part?" he said. "It went on and on....there was that holographic Triceratops head, do you remember?" Oh boy, did I! Glowing green and enormous at the entrance of the hall! But like the rest, there is no photographic record of it on the internet, and another strange, imaginative, dense museum bites the dust.

Pretty sure these are the dudes I remember,
shown here being built by Stephen Czerkas.Thanks to this swell dino blog.
The only, and I mean only, images of this awesome diorama I can find are on stock photo websites. Isn't there anyone out there with a photo blog of their kids pretending to eaten or something? The site where I found them describes the image as "Deinonychus sculptures in a diorama by Stephen Czerkas in the California Academy of Sciences." They're 8-11 feet each!

I'm complaining about the new Academy because I'm so sad that no other kids will ever get to experience the feeling of those rooms. They've been homogenized and sterilized and upscaled, and there's nothing playful or stranage about them any more. No more Deinonychii leaping out life-sized to scare the bejeezus out of the wee ones. No gem-like frogs in their minute glass boxes. No more dusty space rocks. You can see the new floor plan here. (Because it's all flashy now, I can't just embed it.) But here's what exhibits look like now. You know what kids probably won't remember? That blue thing with the screens in it. Whereas the enormous insects made of plastic scurrying among a buncha fake trees, dinky as it might have been, told a story. They were there to reach out and touch. Some things have been saved (the African hall is still pretty cool and almost identical, the flooded Amazon floor is kinda neat) and apparently the shaker table is coming back in May, but in some odd way, the abandonment of all my favorite things has served to teach me an important lesson: if you want to make a museum memorable forever, don't make it hip, or classy, or clean. Make it weird and beautiful and cool and alive, a whole strange world to step into and dream about.

I don't know about you, but I sure don't dream about stuff like that "Underwater Diversity" exhibit.

Do you have a tragic story of a magical place gone missing? Or better yet, a trove of photos from the lost exhibits I can weep over?? Let me know!


  1. Well I can't say this exact thing has ever happened to me, but I have had moments where I have searched and searched some tidbit for old memories and not found them anywhere. In the end, even I'd wonder if I imagined their existence. Somehow I imagine if that something ever existed, then there will be some proof in some corner of the internet. There are so many songs I heard during my childhood that I just cannot find any trace of. Noone seems to remember those songs either. Did I dream-compose those songs?! :|
    I spent the first half of my childhood in Goa and it was the prettiest most exciting place in the world to me. We had a beautiful garden with plants and trees that all grew together to form this wonderful, muddled-up, exciting fairyland. That place was alive in my memories. A couple of years ago I went back to Goa on a trip, and just to refresh those memories I visited my old house. The garden was gone. It was dirty, brown and dry. I could barely recognise the place! And because Goa is such a humid place, all of the pictures we took there have all just rotted away with fungal attacks. Now I wonder if I just dreamt up a beautiful little backyard garden or did it actually exist.. :(
    I totally identify with this post.. A little nostalgic right now.
    Happy A-Zing! :)
    Conquering the World... with a Pencil

    1. Aw, that's so terribly sad! And yet...I don't know about you, but there's something strangely beautiful about the idea of having dreamed a garden into existence. What if it always was that dry but you, when you were young, simply didn't see it that way, and saw instead a magical fairyland, as you say? That's what I wondered about the dinosaur exhibit -- was it really just a bunch of bones that I had somehow really seen as far more alive, just because my imagination was alive?

  2. I always appreciate reminiscences about childhood.

    1. Thanks, Francene! They do tend to have a pretty strong hold on us, I find, and almost everyone can resonate with them, even if they haven't shared precisely the same experience.

  3. That place looks like it was so much fun. Great start to the Challenge. Thanks for sharing and for stopping by my blog. :)

    1. Science museums are awesome, even when they're not as good as they once you have a favorite?

    2. I don't think I really have a favorite. Except that I do love the rain forest in the Academy.

      My favorite museum from my childhood is in Arkansas, but I don't even know what it's like anymore.

      (and I won't spoil it for anyone else by guessing your E)

  4. This is pretty close to my kids' absolute favorite place in the world. The Exploratorium being the major rival.

    1. I'll give you three guesses what I've got planned for letter E. Aaaand your first two guesses don't count.

  5. I also wanted to be a paleontologist from the time I was 4 to about 12; although, it wasn't the Academy that prompted it. I only ever went to the old Academy a couple of times, and none of my kids remember it, but they do love the new one.

    1. ...and I'm glad your kids love the new museum, anyway. That gives me hope, even if I get crotchety about it...

  6. Here are some really old photos from the Academy. I remember the vintage you described, and it's a bit later than these.

    This pinterest has some fun ones too.

    But wow, I love your description of the old museum. I have the same experience of having dreams where I get lost or wonder inside and old dark museum, and mine are based on the old Academy as well. The old dark spaces had a sort of meditative quality to them.

    If you like old dark museums that only exist in your mind (anymore, that is) you might also like The Barnum Museum, a short story by Steven Millhauser. I found my copy in The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle.

    On another note, I had the pleasure of working with a guy who was friends with Stephen Czerkas, the guy who sculpted the deinonychus. He said that after the museum closed, he got the dinosaurs back. Finding that out made me pretty happy. They were my favourite thing, and I even remember when they used to rock back and forth. They did do that, right? Do you remember? It's a pretty dim memory for me. I asked a docent about why they didn't on a fieldtrip once and they told me it was to save on electricity.

  7. I remember it well, and I'm also frustrated that very little evidence seems to exist online.


Please do try to be thoughtful and considerate when posting comments, but we do love hearing what you think!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...