California Academy of Sciences

Choosing between a natural history museum, aquarium, and a planetarium? At the California Academy of Sciences, you don’t need to. The California Academy of Sciences is comprised of the Steinhart Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium, and the Kimball Natural History Museum, all housed under one green roof in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA. While this may seem overwhelming to some, everything is connected with an underlying narrative of understanding and conservating the natural world around us.   

No museum seems complete without a dinosaur, and CAS does not disappoint, with a Tyrannosaurus rex mount welcoming you. Additionally, the African hall showcases taxidermized African mammals, information about human evolution, and even includes live South African penguins! The Color of Life exhibit shows how light and color exist in the natural world, describing light waves and how different animal see, as well as the role of color across species. Additionally, animals and environments local to the California coast are highlighted in their Giants of Land and Sea interactive exhibit. Skeletons of marine mammals are displayed, including a hanging blue whale from the ceiling. Additionally, you can experience coastal fog and the historical 1904 and 1989 earthquakes, while also learning about the California redwoods.

Overhead view of the Giants of Land and Sea exhibit.

Across the museum, there is a concerted effort in displaying the people and research behind the exhibits. An interactive, hands-on explore room allows children of all ages to learn using items from the collections, while also providing books and other inquiry-based material. Additionally, a display showcasing the diversity of the museum staff and researchers is a welcome sight and a tangible result of the museums efforts for increasing diversity and inclusion.

Panels of museum scientists highlighting the diversity within the museum.

However, my favorite exhibit was the Hidden Wonders, a new exhibit that provides an unprecedented peak into the collections. Museums are starting to show their collections and explain the curation and research process more often in recent years, as a push to help visitors understand what goes on at museums. I am personally in favor of this effort, as I think the way to scientific literacy comes from understanding the nature of science, rather than just learning the results of scientific endeavors. The Hidden Wonders exhibit at CAS does an excellent job showcasing pieces of the collection that weren’t previously on display, as well as highlighting current, previous, and future research and projects of the museum using the collections.

Entrance to the Hidden Wonders exhibit
 Sabertooth tiger fossil displayed in the Hidden Wonders exhibit, showcasing the past wildlife of California.

You enter a dark, closed room, a stark difference from the light and open museum behind you. Each cabinet has a different focus of the use of the collections, with the specimens highlighted with light from within. In front of each case stands an interactive screen, where you can find out more information about each specimen. Throughout the exhibit, QR codes are utilized to encourage visitors to learn more. Additionally, the exhibit credits researchers as it discusses the research taking place at the museum, something that is not normally seen in public exhibits. I think this goes a long way to include the people behind the research that are normally invisible in an exhibit.

Wide shot of the Hidden Wonders exhibit, see how the specimens are lit within the display cases as a stark difference to the dark room.

A TV sits in an alcove in the center of the room, playing a video about why researchers use collections and what research is being conducted with the collections today. I was surprised to see the video include a history of the collections that included acknowledgements about their roots in colonialism and racism with a further discussion about how the museum is now partnering with local communities. One example was the large amount of weaving basketry materials from the Pomo weavers that the museum maintains in its collections. Current efforts are being made to bring individuals of the Pomo tribe and use the baskets in the collections as teaching tools for new weavers in the local communities.

The California Academy of Sciences is a top-tier museum that is endeavoring to update and grow its exhibits, which provides an excellent experience for all visitors. If you have a day or even a few hours to spare in San Francisco, this is one place you shouldn’t miss. Immerse yourself in the nature and wonder of the Californian coast and you’ll be surprised with how much you learn. CAS is open 365 days a year, Monday-Saturday: 9:30 am-5 pm, Sunday: 11 am-5 pm. Additionally, they offer adult only Thursday NightLife (21+ with ID) from 6-10 pm, which is an excellent way to experience the museum without younger enthusiasts running around. Make sure to buy your admission early to skip the line and safe a few bucks.

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Devra Hock-Reid

Devra Hock-Reid, Ph.D., studies mammalian paleoecology and is researching how the composition of communities within biomes can be used for paleontological interpretations. Additionally, she works in informal education, particularly in museums, and is starting a career in museum education and exhibit programming. Follow Devra on Twitter or Instagram (@paleogal_devra) or at her website (