California Academy of Sciences unveiled

From the albino alligator basking in its swamp to the rolling hills of wildflowers serving as its roof, the California Academy of Sciences is burbling with life.

After a decade of planning, the museum will open to the public Sept. 27.

The Academy kept many of its iconic displays, such as the dioramas of taxidermic animals that have graced the African Hall since 1934. But it also added live penguins, more multimedia and a living rainforest. Light pours into airy, open galleries from every direction.

The 38,000 animals of the Steinhart Aquarium, once confined to their own hall, appear throughout the Academy. In the Rainforests of the World exhibit, visitors are enveloped in humidity, plant and animal life.

Authenticity was key to designing the rainforest, Steinhart Aquarium Director Chris Andrews said Thursday during a media preview of the facility.

“We want people to experience it like a rainforest, not someone’s tended backyard,” he said.

A strong focus on conservation and sustainability is infused with many of the exhibits. The academy’s T-Rex skeleton hovers over Altered State: Climate Change in California, as if to remind visitors of species now extinct. The exhibit explores the science of climate change and the steps necessary to mitigate it. Families can measure their own carbon footprint and videotape a promise to conserve.

“It’s easier to make a promise when you make it to someone else, especially if your kids are watching you,” said Carol Tang, director of visitor interpretive programs.

The academy also boasts the world’s largest all-digital planetarium. Current data from NASA guides visitors on the most accurate digital universe ever created, said Ryan Wyatt, director of Morrison Planetarium and Science Visualization.

Meanwhile, school groups and students will find 210,000 books, 25,000 maps, 300,000 images and 20 million animals, plants, minerals and cultural artifacts in the Naturalist Center, home to the academy’s library and research collections.

tbarak@sfexaminer.com

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