Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: California Academy of Sciences
Trip Date: September 12, 2009
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: October 20, 2009

Five persons attended the California Academy of Sciences field trip on Saturday, September 12, 2009.

The recently renovated California Academy of Sciences had re-opened almost a year ago to much fanfare and long lines. It was hot property for quite a while, but the lines are down and it may be getting a bit cooler for its bean counters. Unfortunately such attractions are in situations where they have to push the "Disney spin" and compete aggressively for tourist bucks instead of emphasizing their former missions of education and research. That "Jurassic Park" marketing, in my opinion, makes the public half of the Academy just a bit too slick for its scientific britches. Of course the reason to push the hype is valid-the facility needs to survive. I've always loved the science but I hate the hype. (There is still a lot of good science going on behind the walls-the saving grace of this facility. Actually, the Academy that is hidden from the public is much more interesting than the public exhibits. And I thought the attractive teaching facilities on the upper floor were excellent.) But, as a general admission visitor you now get a much bigger cardboard stick with a lot less cotton candy for your $25 ticket. Ouch!

After its re-opening, the facility was touted for its highly advanced, four-story rain forest built in a large spherical space with a river at the bottom where visitors could walk through a transparent tube and look up through the water into the exhibit. Quite a "to-do" was made about its 2-1/2-acre "living roof." Our party took the elevator to the living roof and found it to be pretty dead-well, actually, dormant. I wan't too impressed, but I'm sure it will be quite nice in the spring when the flowers bloom. Of course, when it's gorgeous again, there will be a big line to see it!

The main floor includes the concessions in an enclosed, central food court, the Global Warming exhibit toward the back and the entrance to the Rain Forest sphere, the planetarium and the old natural history wing (containing the stuffed African animal colleciton). Architecturally, the facility is great-the sphere and roof are awesome structures. Below ground level is the aquarium featuring fresh and salt water fish collections. Gone is the wall of small aquariums of the old Steinhart Aquarium, replaced by new large tanks (similar in design to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's large panoramic-view tanks). Unfortunately the Academy's fish exhibits fall quite short of the MBA's excellent displays. I did find the tank with the very colorful tropical salt water fish very engaging. I could sit for hours in front of that tank watching the several hundred multi-colored fish go about their business. Still, I found myself missing is the old "roundabout," where numerous species of ocean fish swam round in an endless circle with a spectators' platform in the middle. And I missed the colorful little fish in the small wall tanks, the dinosaur diorama, the amphibian and reptile "zoo" and the rocks and minerals collection, which all went the way of the Passenger Pigeon.

The more I saw of the new facility, the more I found myself getting nostalgic for the old Academy. (The Global Warming exhibit didn't generate enough interest to melt my ice.) In my opinion, these new "Green" facilities are not satisfactory substitutes for the "good old days" of science museums. I think it all comes down to this: Environmental exhibits can't give you that "bang for the buck" of the old-school Barnum and Bailey-style science spectaculars. I'm talking about those not-politically-correct exhibits designed to delight the kiddies-the ones that fall somewhere in that sweet spot between bear bating and the other extremes found in those political-message infused environmental exhibits (Global Warming, Rain Forest, Recycling, Pollution, etc.). Honestly, I still prefer a good alligator wrestling match between a shirtless muscle man and eight-foot reptile, or a chicken playing a piano, or a fast-paced hog race, to just sitting in a lotus pose contemplating the native grass growing or fretting about the ice melting.

The Academy is still a great facility and you should definitely go see it and support it. And, thankfully, there still is no shortage of photo opportunities there. (By the way, they have a no-tripods policy.)

© 2009 S.R. Hinrichs