Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Gay staffers ready new academy


The colony of African penguins has moved into its new digs at the Academy of Sciences. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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In a little over three weeks the California Academy of Sciences will open its new building in Golden Gate Park to the public. Working behind the scenes are several gay staffers busy ensuring everything is ready for opening day.

"We are looking great for the September 27 opening. We will be working all through September to get everything ready," said Scott Moran, an openly gay man who is the project director overseeing construction of the new academy.

This week Moran's main focus has been putting the finishing touches on the academy's Rainforests of the World exhibit. The multi-level living rainforest is housed within a 90-foot diameter glass dome that juts out of the building's living roof.

Inside, visitors will find various species and plants representing a flooded Amazonian rainforest, the floor of a Borneo rainforest, the understory of a Madagascar rainforest, and the canopy of a Costa Rica rainforest. Giant catfish, vegetarian piranhas, poison dart frogs, and fruit-eating bats, along with other birds, animals, and insects, will call the dome home.

"We are working on the rainforest and getting all the animals and exhibits in there. It is a complicated element," said Moran, who lives in the Castro. "It is a large ecosystem in a 90-foot diameter glass sphere. We have a lot to do in there."

Born and raised in the Bay Area, Moran spent a decade at the Walt Disney Company's Imagineering unit, where he worked on creating and designing its theme park rides. He joined the academy six and a half years ago to help execute its move to temporary facilities South of Market and then to coordinate the construction and design of the new building.

"One thing people are going to love is, it is a beautiful building. The attention to detail is just amazing," said Moran. "Renzo Piano is an incredible architect."

Moving time

Work on the $488 million project began in September 2005 and the new 410,000 square foot space was completed in October 2007. The academy embarked on what was dubbed "the great migration" January 7, moving more than 20 million scientific specimens collected over the past 150 years into the new green-certified quarters.

In drips and drabs various departments carefully moved out of the their temporary digs downtown on Howard Street near Fifth to the new building in Golden Gate Park. Old favorites, like the stuffed Grizzly bear named Kodiak and the live colony of African penguins, will be on display along with several long stored-away pieces of the collection, such as a complete 84-foot-long blue whale skeleton that now hangs from the ceiling. It had been in storage in Novato.

Russ Hartman, the senior collections manager for the academy's Department of Anthropology, has spent his summer unpacking 700 boxes of artifacts from around the world, such as Hopi deity figures and New Guinea life-sized dance masks to 16 foot-long wooden kayaks.

"The new building is designed very specifically for what we have and there is some space for future growth," said Hartman, who is openly gay. "If we do a New Guinea or Eskimo exhibit, we can display those objects."

Approximately 16,000 items in all make up the collection. In the previous building, Hartman did have a hallway dedicated to displaying his department's artifacts. In the new building a few pieces of his collection will be included in various displays, but for the most part, the items will remain hidden from public view. He has a new show on kitchen utensils opening at the San Francisco International Airport this month.

"Occasionally, every year or two, we will do an anthropology exhibit to showcase one culture," he said. "About 95 percent of our collection with photos is available online, and the other 5 percent has to be photographed."

When the new building opens, pieces of Hartman's collection can be found in the coastal California exhibit, and several baskets and tools have been placed near the 12,000 square foot coral reef exhibit. At 25 feet in depth, the new coral reef display is the deepest exhibit of live corals in the world.

"We have a shark-toothed weapon used for warfare," on display there, said Hartman.

Hartman specializes in North American art, and prior to taking a job as a curator with the academy 18 years ago, he worked with the Navajo Tribe in Arizona.

"I always had a fascination with Native American cultures, ever since I was a little kid," he said.

The academy's current collection dates back to 1906, as almost everything older was lost in the earthqu

Russ Hartman of the anthropology department at the California Academy of Sciences unpacks items from the collection at their new building in Golden Gate Park. Photo: Rick Gerharter
ake and subsequent fire that destroyed the city that year. The anthropology department has the most objects of any other that survive from that time, said Hartman.

Since then next to nothing has been thrown out, and the collection fills up row after row in the new building for researchers to use and study.

"We try not to throw away anything. We're in the middle of the world's worst mass extinction period now, so this may be the only chance future generations have to see these animals," said Jack Dumbacher, curator of birds and mammals, earlier this year prior to the start of the move into the new building.


Another key attraction of the new facility will be its Morrison Planetarium. It will be nothing like the homemade star projector academy staffers designed and built in 1952, when Germany's star projectors were unattainable in the wake of World War II.

Also housed in a 90-foot diameter dome, the planetarium will sport a 75-foot diameter screen and new digital projector and software technologies. With 300 seats, the dome will be used to broadcast live NASA feeds from current missions, connect visitors to academy research expeditions in the field, and host special events.

The academy hired Ryan Wyatt, an openly gay man who previously worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, to be its new director of the Morrison Planetarium and science visualization. The Duboce Triangle resident has been working in San Francisco since April 2007.

"It is an incredibly exciting opportunity. It is not often that a natural history museum tears itself down and rebuilds itself," said Wyatt.

He is putting the finishing touches on the new show, called Fragile Planet, created for the opening. Actress Sigourney Weaver narrates it, and employees of both Pixar Studios and George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic have helped with the technological aspects. Wyatt said it will be nothing like the old stargazing shows.

"The connection between a planetarium and an institution like this is not so readily apparent. Where we can really use the planetarium environment is to describe any kind of science," said Wyatt. "The opening show really tries to connect the academy and the earth to space and the topic of astronomy."

Wyatt said he is confident everything will be in place in time for the planetarium's debut.

"We actually are on a good track toward the opening. We had the composer on site over the weekend, so 80 percent of the score is now complete," he said. "Sigourney did a wonderful job. The script sounds great with the music. The show is coming along really nicely."

Light-filled halls

Along with the ray and shark pool that encircles the planetarium's base, Wyatt said he also is fond of the new building's openness and light-filled halls.

"Those of us on the production team call it shark and ray therapy. It is a wonderful lagoon where we can stop and reflect right at the entrance to the planetarium," said Wyatt. "I really enjoy the way you can experience a connection to the park pretty much anywhere from inside the building. Here you are looking at green areas and can see how the building is filled with light, unlike 19th century historical museums with their dark rooms and musty interiors."

Moran predicted that the building will be an unqualified success with the public.

"I think people are really going to love it," he said. "It really is trying to reinvent what it means to be a natural history museum of the 21st century."

Architect Piano, the academy's Executive Director Greg Farrington, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and other officials will commemorate the completion of the new building with an opening ceremony at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, September 27.

The academy will be open free to the public that day from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Thereafter, admission will cost $24.95 for adults; $19.95 for youth ages 12 to 17, seniors ages 65+ and students with valid ID; $14.95 for children ages seven to 11; and free for children ages 6 and younger.

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