The City's new big-ticket museum

Something just doesn’t seem right about the California Academy of Sciences charging more than double its prior admission prices when it reopens this fall after a $500 million renovation. After all, the popular science museum and aquarium has always been located on public land in Golden Gate Park, and nearly one-third of the construction funding — $152 million — came from voter-approved bonds plus state and federal funds.

One would think that such a major level of donor support would at least be worth a bonus discount for visitors carrying identification as residents of The City. That feels like a more appropriate recognition of San Francisco’s contributions than does the current offer of 17 free days per year for all visitors, free admission for San Francisco school groups and discounts for patrons arriving by public transit.

Instead, the previous $10 adult admission will now balloon to $24.95. Tickets for children older than 6 will cost $14.95 and teens will be charged $19.95. Yearly memberships that include free admission are $99 for an individual or $159 for a family.

Let us not forget that the California Academy of Sciences is primarily a family attraction — unlike somewhat more adult-appeal local facilities such as art museums. So it could easily cost a family of four close to $100 merely to park in the underground garage and gain entry to the science exhibits. This is not exactly family-friendly pricing. In fact, the Academy will generally be charging about twice as much as similar local attractions such as the Exploratorium and the Bay Area Discovery Museum.

Academy of Sciences representatives told The Examiner the new building will deliver a unique museum experience at prices that are in line with top-level attractions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium or New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Also, the Academy’s $55 million annual operating costs must be substantially funded by ticket sales from an estimated 1.5 million yearly visitors. And the high admission charges are supposed to guarantee sufficient maintenance to prevent the new Academy building from deteriorating like the old one did.

These rationales might all be well and good. But New York’s legendary Museum of Modern Art also had a multiyear hiatus in smaller temporary quarters during extensive renovations. And when MoMA reopened in 2004, the public was outraged that admission cost had jumped from $12 to $20. The controversy only faded when a corporate sponsor (Target Stores) stepped up and provided free entry hours once every week.

That kind of creative remedy is likely to be needed here, too. Otherwise the California Academy of Sciences can expect to lose a lot of friends.

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