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26 October 2008

The California Academy of Charismatic and/or Quirky Fauna of Varying Sizes

As there has been such media hype over the long-awaited re-opening of the California Academy of Sciences, I thought I ought to pay a visit, even if I did baulk at the admission charge of $24.95 ($16.95 if you came via "alternative transport" and have an (ah-hem) valid student ID). Coming from London where you can get into the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and many others for free (or for a genuinely optional "suggested admission"), this is pretty pricey. Even the American Museum of Natural History in New York is only $15 for adults. However, the Academy is pretty damn cool and they have a live, white alligator in the lobby (in a replica swamp--not just roaming free, although that might at least have kept some of the enfants out of my way). Also, once you've paid, everything is free, including the planetarium.

However, the queuing never seems to end! OK, late morning on a Saturday isn't the best time to go to a newly opened museum likely to appeal to families, but even so. There was a 20-minute line to buy tickets, a 5-minute line to get in once you had tickets, a 10-minute queue inside to get into the three-storey replica rainforest and a 30-minute queue to buy tickets for the 4.30 planetarium showing--at 11.45--not to mention the queues for the loos, the cafe, the lifts and the best viewpoints to snap cute and/or weird creatures.

I think I had expected that the Academy would be a more expensive, more interactive hybrid of London's Science Museum and Natural History Museum (both of which are excellent, especially given there is no charge) but it seems the Academy is somewhat misnamed--the California Academy of Nature or the California Academy of Charismatic and/or Quirky Megafauna (with Token Planetarium Annex) would have been more accurate because there wasn't really much science at all. Sure, there are myriad aquaria filled with (live) marine creatures from a variety of habitats (swamps, coral reefs, salt marshes) and there's an amazing rainforest that is really fun to walk through (not least because the pretty birds and butterflies are all so tame, which makes taking photos easy), oh and there's a roof with grass and weeds on it (sorry, I mean a living roof). 

But other than small fragments of ecology and biodiversity and a couple of panels on evolution, there wasn't much in the way of science education (and nothing at all from most scientific disciplines--I mean, the AMNH even had a panel on linguistics in its Hall of Human Evolution--at the Academy, the only presence from the non-biological sciences was the planetarium--oh, and a big pendulum). Maybe that's not the point (SF, after all, does have the Exploratorium as well) but if not, that strikes me as odd given that the AMNH does a very good job of being informative yet kid-friendly. All the kids today were just rushing round yelling about all the creatures (and leaning over the rail on the top-floor of the rainforest to stretch out to touch the butterfly feeding on a dish cunningly placed just out of reach of small, climbing children...). But you could do all that at the zoo.
Anyway, absence of science aside, I did enjoy my visit, although if I paid the same amount again, I would definitely want to make sure I got to see a space show. I spent at least 30 minutes in the rainforest taking photos of the gorgeous butterflies and birds, which would often just land right on your hand (so much so that there was a warning that it was a federal offence to leave the rainforest without checking you didn't have a new friend with you!). The prettiest of all was the baby blue, Blue Morpho, which wasn't very well trained because although it was bigger than the other butterflies, it had obviously munched some kid's Ritalin or Coke just before I arrived because it just couldn't sit still long enough for me to snap it. Then my camera battery died and I had to switch to the CrackBerry (which doesn't have a macro zoom and didn't do a very good job of photographing a pretty red bird eating a pretty black and yellow butterfly and feeding it to its really cute baby birds). Most of the kids--and adults--seemed to be enjoying themselves, anyway, and I even tried to be tolerant and not to shove them out of the way when I wanted to take a photo of the Blue Morpho. It was lucky for them I'd already had plenty of coffee.

The Academy is a bit of a trek from the centre of town and because this city's public transport system (systems?) is incredibly complicated, I decided to get Google to give me public transport directions to get there. Oh good, I thought; there is a direct, express bus that stops a few blocks from my apartment. When I got to the bus (the 74X), though, I found out that this was the "Culcha Bus" and I would have to pay $7 (which I assume--hope--was for a day pass) so then had to hurry off to the second most direct bus, which was a bargain at $1.50. When you're already paying $20 for admission, the last thing you want is to spend the rest of your emergency stock of dolar bills on a super-high bus fare. 


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