Museum nearly out of woods

For the thousands of people who will flock to the new California Academy of Sciences this weekend, the focus of attention will be on the spectacular building with its living roof, a 90-foot dome holding a breathtaking rain forest and a coral reef that seems anything but artificial.

There will be some familiar sights among the new trappings — alligators near the entrance, a center stage for the colony of African penguins and a long, rectangular hall featuring the academy’s beloved dioramas.

But one of the most remarkable aspects of the new museum is something that won’t be on display. It’s the fact that it was nearly drummed out of its location by the town’s fractious politics, a case that should remind us that the needs of the many should not be overshadowed by the objections of the few.

Golden Gate Park is now home to two world-class museums that are a short jaunt from each other, linked by an underground parking garage and some contentious campaigns that at one point involved a timeline for one or both institutions to be moved to different sites — primarily over issues relating to road closures and access. It took a broadly determined grassroots campaign to stem the tide back then, and it’s certainly worth remembering the history so that we’re not doomed to repeat it.

“I’m so glad that it’s happened because it adds to the richness of The City,” said Jill Wynns, a longtime San Francisco school board member who was one of the leaders of the coalition to keep the museums in the park. “When I go out there now and look at those museums, I’m so proud of what we did.”

I was one of the public pincushions during that fight — beginning in 1997 and lasting for nearly two years — battered by the interests of some board members and the anticar (and antigarage) forces from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. The new academy may be a stage for a world of wonder, but at the time, most people were wondering whether it would stick around to rebuild or if the de Young Museum would move to another location near The Embarcadero.

Certainly there was some heavy muscle behind those options. At one of his State of The City addresses, then-Mayor Willie Brown said the de Young must leave Golden Gate Park because “its needs are no longer consistent” with the place that had served as its home for the past century. Yet he also wanted to keep the Academy of Sciences there because it would still be a good home for it.

All I can say is that it’s a good thing Brown ultimately turned his attention to Muni, because in terms of fearless prognostication — and the general state of Golden Gate Park — Brown’s accuracy was about on par with the 49ers’ Alex Smith.

A key turning point in that campaign was the discovery of a private survey done by the de Young’s board of trustees that showed San Franciscans overwhelmingly wanted to keep both museums in the park, a view that was reiterated by voter passage of the underground parking garage and the bonds to rebuild the academy. A separate bond measure for the de Young was defeated after consultant Jack Davis led a campaign based on the notion that all such initiatives would be blocked until San Francisco put a bond measure on the ballot to rebuild Laguna Honda Hospital.

It was a bare-knuckles fight to get the museums back on track, and board members of the two institutions deserve a lot of credit for staying the course — at least once the course was laid out for them. And it’s worth noting that all the various parties involved, from the museum heads to the bicycle activists, got what they wanted in the ensuing years, leading to Saturday’s opening of the new $488 million academy — a building that some national publications have listed among the best architectural gems of the year.

So despite all the haggling and debate about Golden Gate Park not being a parking lot, our famous forested jewel is now the home of two museums built by two of the most famous architects in the world, with attendance records to follow.

The rhetoric of that day — that museums in parks are a thing of the past — proved to be misguided. That may provide a lesson for the Presidio, the site of a proposed modern-art museum Gap founder Don Fisher wants to donate to The City.

Displays of public art and popular science are so much more engaging than the politics that can obscure them.

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