I got to visit the great state of California for Christmas this year, and was fortunate enough to be staying in the South Bay Area, so on Dec. 26th myself, my boyfriend, his best friend, and his fiancée all made the trip up to the city to go to San Francisco’s great California Academy of Sciences. I was last here in 2012, around 4pm, and only had enough time to check out the Rainforests of the World biodome and catch a show at the Morrison Planetarium. Oh, and go up on the Living Roof. All of which were really cool. but when we were rushing around, the Earthquake! exhibit was still being put together, and I didn’t have enough time to check anything else out.
This time was different.
Being the active Twitter fiend that I am, I announced to the Cal Academy and the world that I would be coming up the day after Christmas with some friends. When I arrived, I got a tweet from the Academy, telling me to look behind an info desk for a little prize. What should have been there was a Claude pencil (Claude is their albino alligator), but some happy child already snagged it. It was still really cool to interact with whoever was in the PR/Social Media office at the Academy, though! So thanks for that!
Out of everything that we saw at the Academy, hands down my favorite exhibitions was Earthquake: Life on a Dynamic Planet. It was so incredibly cool, and it combined the real-life experiences of most Californians with the science behind earthquakes and plate tectonics. Within the exhibition “space” (it’s located in the open atrium) are several exhibits, including a walk-through Earth structure, San Francisco Shakes (the Shake House that allows visitors to experience the 1906 and the 1989 earthquakes, an updated version of the Cal Academy’s past exhibits), and a game called Connect the Continents. After visitors exit the Shake House, they can explore the emergency preparedness exhibit, which details how you can be better prepared for an earthquake in the future.
For someone who lives in Massachusetts, this exhibit was incredibly interesting and taught me a lot. We don’t have earthquake preparedness classes in primary and secondary school in MA, and I would have no idea what to do in the event of an earthquake (that’s not entirely true: I know not to go outside). The Shake House was a great simulation; due to safety, the hydraulics only shake the house back and forth, there is no up and down movement. But it was still pretty intense! The 1989 quake only lasted for 15 seconds, so we first experienced the full length of that quake; the 1906 quake lasted a terrifying 90 seconds, but the Shake House simulation only lasted for 30 – it was still an intense example of just how scary experiencing an earthquake of that magnitude must be. When you exit the Shake House, you walk out into the ‘Get Prepared!’ section, which has examples of foods to keep stocked in an emergency box, a first aid kit, and a crank radio that plays the emergency broadcast signal at an alarmingly high volume. What I thought was cool was the “Quake Talk” wall panel, where visitors could leave notes about their experiences with earthquakes around the world. I love that the exhibit combines both the history of San Francisco with the geologic and tectonic forces that create earthquakes, and brings you into the larger science of plate tectonics and the geologic history of our planet. It’s an all-encompassing exhibition that goes above and beyond expectations. It’s also incredibly relevant to the everyday culture of the San Francisco Bay Area and California, and yet is universally understandable in the greater context of how our planet works. The Academy included some excellent examples of evolutionary diversity due to the movement of plates; while you stand in line for the Shake House you walk around a display of an ostrich, and emu, a kiwi, and a few other flightless bird species that all evolved and diversified on different continents after the plates began to shift.
The Academy also had a temporary exhibit called ‘Tis the Season for Science’, which runs until January 5th. Much of the focus was on reindeer during the winter; stations included antler growth, reindeer fur, the science behind how reindeer run, and what it’s like to see as a reindeer. There was also a snowman theatre, which we didn’t go in, but inside was a video on reindeer and was geared towards kids. There were also some presentations throughout the day while we were there, but we were too engrossed with all of the exhibits to sit and watch. The best part of this temporary exhibit, though, was the LIVE REINDEER! The Academy has two, Willow (female) and Yukon (male) in a paddock outside the museum (no, not on the living roof). There was only one docent available at the paddock to talk to visitors, but there were also several panels dispelling well-known myths about reindeer and answering some fundamental questions. My favorite was the panel explaining that caribou and reindeer are the same!
It was cool seeing both a male and female reindeer, too. Willow, the female, was much smaller in size, was a darker brown, and her antlers were smaller. Yukon was much bigger, and the typical light brown/white/grey that we’re used to seeing on reindeer. His antlers were shedding in preparation for them to fall off entirely – because male reindeer don’t have antlers in the winter (Santa’s reindeer are therefore all girls)! Having the outdoor paddock was also a great reason to step outside the museum building for a few minutes and catch some air. There were tons of kids outside, running around and checking out the reindeer, and I’m sure their parents were relieved at having somewhere for them to just be kids.
Of course, we saw the Rainforests biodome and the Steinhart Aquarium, which were both just as cool as they were the last time I saw them. But I really have to hand it to the Cal Academy, the Earthquake exhibition is the greatest science exhibit I have seen in a while. It’s seamless combination of geology, tectonic activity, history, and evolutionary biology worked so incredibly well, and this exhibit should be a model to all other science and natural history museums that are trying to think of new and different ways to connect their exhibits together. It’s a museum that I strongly recommend everyone check out!
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