Geology and paleontology at the California Academy of Sciences, 1895–2016: A brief overview
Published:November 27, 2018
Alan E. Leviton, Michele L. Aldrich, 2018. "Geology and paleontology at the California Academy of Sciences, 1895–2016: A brief overview", Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making, Gary D. Rosenberg, Renee M. Clary
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Too often we view museums as display centers, not places where basic research takes place. But that is unfortunate. Museums bridge the gap between scientists and public outreach and, on balance, manage well. This is true for many of the world’s major museums, including the California Academy of Sciences, where geology plays a significant role in both basic research and outreach programs.
In 1889, the Academy began construction of its building on Market Street in downtown San Francisco to replace the ramshackle church that had been its home for some years. It would now have space for public exhibits and its core research activities. For some of its exhibits, spectacular materials were purchased from Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, but for others, it drew upon its own collections, notably rocks and minerals. The new Academy opened its doors to the public in early 1892, but not long afterward both buildings and contents were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The Academy rebounded and undertook construction of new facilities in Golden Gate Park where, for many years, its exhibits, apart from the magnificent Steinhart Aquarium and its displays of living fishes, consisted mostly of habitat dioramas but also included a mineralogy hall and, in time, a fossil hall, Life through Time. The mineral hall played to the human urge to collect and classify, embodied in the “rock-hound” approach of youngsters who fill their rooms with natural materials. And basic research by curators, e.g., F.M. Anderson, GD. Hanna, L.G. Hertlein, A.G. Smith, and, more recently, P.D. Roopnarine, R. Mooi, and G.C. Williams, resulted in many publications on stratigraphy, paleontology, paleocommunities, and evolution and extinctions.
In the late 1980s, confronted by seismic concerns, the Academy replaced all but one of its buildings. And, because of exciting developments, the new geology exhibits, introduced by an eye-catching globe and text about the Earth’s crust, panels on earthquakes (California’s “bugaboo”) and on continental drift and plate tectonics and their impact on Earth history, reinforce the educational aspects of the Academy’s public outreach. Also given Kociolek and Fourtanier’s studies of diatoms, and more recently paleobiodiversity and biogeography by Mooi, Roopnarine, and students, and with fossil and mineral collections, managed by Jean DeMouthe, now numbering in the millions of specimens, outreach and basic research continue unabated.
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Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making
Natural history museums have evolved over the past 500 years to become vanguards of science literacy and thus institutions of democracy. Curiosity about nature and distant cultures has proven to be a powerful lure, and museums have progressively improved public engagement through increasingly immersive exhibits, participation in field expeditions, and research using museum holdings, all facilitated by new technology. Natural history museums have dispersed across the globe and demonstrated that public fascination with ancient life, vanished environments, exotic animals in remote habitats, cultural diversity, and our place in the cosmos is universal. This volume samples the story of museum development and illustrates that the historical successes of natural history museums have positioned them to be preeminent facilitators of science literacy well into the future.