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A museum that shouts climate change

January 14, 2009 | 12:50 pm

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More than 640,000 visitors have wandered below the undulating, wildflower-adorned roof of the California Academy of Sciences since the $488-million museum opened Sept. 27 in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Replacing a neoclassical building damaged in the 1989 earthquake, the dazzling, light-filled structure by Renzo Piano has been lauded by architecture critics and awarded the highest "platinum" rating by the U.S. Green Building Council for its cutting-edge, energy-saving features.

The museum's tiered rainforest with butterflies that flit about your head, its walk-through aquarium, its Galapagos and Madagascar exhibits, and its 38,000 live animals, from neon-hued geckos to African penguins--altogether, it is a 412,000-square-foot natural history extravaganza. But for all its theatricality, what makes the academy even more unusual is its uncompromising stance on climate change. This is a museum with a point of view.

"Altered State," the bold, 10,000-square-foot exhibit designed by the Los Angeles production firm Cinnabar, tells in lively graphics and easy-to-understand illustrations how the Earth is warming from heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions, how species are disappearing, how glaciers are melting, and how oceans are acidifying. But beyond that, the interactive nature of the exhibit all but shouts at the visitor: Do something about it!

In "Polar Ice: Critical Zone," a big-screen simulation, people can use their bodies to block the rays of the sun, slow the melting of icebergs, and help a baby polar bear reach its mother. The "Carbon Cafe" exhibit features plates-full of various meals, with pull-outs showing how much more, for instance, a beefsteak contributes to global warming than does a serving of vegetables. And the "Carbon Counter," a giant scale with movable weights, allows visitors to calculate their carbon footprint. You drive an SUV? Oops, slide on that weight! You take a lot of airplane trips? Uh oh.

Cinnabar CEO Jonathan Katz, who worked on Jerry Brown's conservation team in the 1970s, is forthright about his agenda -- to make the climate change issue "real in terms of people's daily lives." Museums should not only explain the issues, he says, but also help people who want to know "what we should do to live in a natural world, how we should behave."

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: A blue whale skeleton hovers over the "Altered State" exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences. Credit: Cinnabar

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