California Academy of Sciences – San Francisco

Over the next two and a half months I will be travelling throughout the US, UK and Europe. It is mostly a personal trip. Naturally I will be visiting a number of museums, galleries, libraries and other cultural sites and institutions. Some visits will be formal and I will meet with Education staff, others informal and I will visit as a ‘regular’ guest. Of course, when you work in a museum, visiting other museums is rarely the same as it is for other visitors. It often becomes an idea-gathering expedition, or an exercise in critical evaluation, and sometimes just general admiration of things like: the layout of exhibition panels, interactives, staff roles and contact… etc! As I visit various exhibitions I will be taking notes of my observations and thoughts, as a museum educator and also some notes as an impartial, if that’s possible, visitor.

Today I visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It is an impressive institution with natural history exhibits, a planetarium, an aquarium and a living rainforest display. It has quite expensive entry fee of 34.95USD. While I’m not opposed to entry charges or financially supporting a good museum, from the perspective of a traveller on a very tight budget it could be a deterrent. It’s a tricky line to balance on – charging a rate that allows an institution to remain open, look after its collection and deliver a quality experience for visitors, balanced with the opportunity for as many people as possible the chance to experience and learn from the collection. Having said that, the museum was definitely very slick and had a good number of highly visible and informative staff who interacted well with visitors. So even from the external viewers perspective, and not taking into consideration the behind-the-scenes research, the high cost does translate to good value.

On entry I first checked if they had free wifi, which they did. Then I checked for an apps or online resources. There were no apps that I could find, but they did have a very useable mobile phone website that included useful information for visitors.

The African Hall was more like a traditional museum with taxidermy displays, with the exception of a few reptiles and a collection of live penguins at the end of the hall. In a way it was strange to see these two types of exhibits together and I found myself saying “is it real?” a few times.

The ‘Islands of Evolution’ was a nice homage to Mr Darwin, with some great interactives and colourful displays. I particularly liked the interactive pitfall trap activity and the Galapagos Island Migration interactive. Both were quite easy to use, although it did require careful reading of the information panels. I watched as some children jumped up and down as hard as they could on the Pitfall Trap digital floor image when it really required gentle movement using your foot/shadow.

In this video you can see me using the pitfall bug catcher interactive. By pushing pieces of fruit into the pitfall traps you are able to catch bugs, whose details are then listed on the screen. It was quite smooth to use and the display of species’ details was an informative feature. It could have perhaps been enhanced with a challenge focus, where you needed to choose the right type of food to capture the bug you want.

Another nearby interactive had that challenge focus – where ‘players’ had to choose how each species migrated to the Galapagos Islands.

Another impressive section of the Academy was the planetarium show. Life: A Cosmic Story was produced by the Academy and projected onto a huge dome ceiling. It was a very engaging film that spoke to its viewers with respect – by not ‘dumbing down’ the content and introducing the complex scientific research in a detailed yet clear manner. There is information about the show online, including frequently asked questions. I think this site would be a great place to include links for a webquest style activity so visitors could follow-up on their personal areas of interest.

The Rainforest display was an enclosed climate-controlled exhibit that included animals in the open area (including butterflies, birds and fish, plus enclosed animals (including various reptiles and amphibians). Visitors circled up through the rainforest focussing on the different levels: rainforest floor, lower canopy and upper canopy. A clever way to focus on the differences in species. Once visitors reach the top they then take a lift to the lower ground floor and into the aquarium.

The Rainforest display extends down to the aquarium, showing rainforest water life. The aquarium is quite extensive and includes hands-on areas and an area I particularly liked – Staff Favourites. This section had a collection of cases showing the staffs’ favourite animals/information and the reason why they liked them. I thought this was a great way for staff to share their enthusiasm and it provided some of the best stories in the Academy.

There is also a specific exhibit on Climate Change. It included a range of informative displays and interatives aiming to change behaviours. There were a few places where visitors could leave their own thoughts or commitments to change. It was an effective and engaging exhibit.


The Academy also featured a great Living Roof and a delicious cafe the featured local, organic and sustainable food. It was great to see a cafe following the message of the institution! Overall it was a very enjoyable visit.

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