African Hall mixes old and new

September 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Even though the new California Academy of Sciences will be a first-of-its-kind eco-friendly museum, featuring the latest technology and visitor attractions, a few of the most popular original exhibits will be back including the African Hall.

The Academy first opened the African Hall in 1934. The museum used what were then considered state of the art techniques to create a "trip to Africa" in the middle of San Francisco.

"A team of scientists as well as community members went to Africa, collected specimens, and maybe more importantly they documented one spot in Africa that captured some of the ecology, biology and uniqueness of that place," Carol Tang of the Academy's visitor programs said.

The scientists documented more than 20 unique locations, created life-sized three-dimensional scenes and then combined everything to create the exhibit.

Tang describes the exhibit as a significant piece of the community, saying the "hall meant a lot to the city of San Francisco and to generations of children and families.

The Hall meant so much that when the Academy tore down the old building, crews took care to carefully preserve much of the exhibit.

"We documented everything," Dean Weldon, president of Academy Studios, said. "We took everything apart piece by piece and inventoried it and recorded it, and now we're keeping as much of the original as possible and putting it back together again."

All the moldings and ceilings tiles used during the rebuild match the original pieces, although this time, crews are using earthquake-safe and fire-retardant materials.

The original animals have been refurbished at a taxidermy workshop in Santa Rosa. Even after more than 70 years, most of the animals are in good condition, their insides made of steel rods covered in paper.

"They'd glue it together kind of like papier mache if you will, layers upon layers," taxidermist Michael Barnett said. "It's very hard, if you go and bang on one of these forms. It's a pretty hard material."

The scenery was recreated at Academy Studios in Novato. The original murals were painted on both canvas and plaster. The key pieces were cut out and saved to help recreate the exact colors. The new murals were painted in the Impressionist style so they look as much like the originals as possible.

It took about a year to finish the murals, which were then glued to the walls in the new African Hall, much like heavy duty wall paper. The murals are about 10 feet high, but the walls go up 20 feet, so the artists painted the tops of the walls to blend into the murals. It is almost impossible to see where the canvas ends and the walls begin.

After the murals were installed, the animals and plants were brought back in and anchored to the exhibit.

The original plants were made of wax and very fragile. Some are being reused, but designers also made new, sturdier models out of plastic.

On top of all the old features, the Academy is also adding completely new features to the exhibit, including a 70 foot long "African scene" that uses video projectors to make it look as though animals in the background are moving.

"The Acacia trees and the termite mounds, and things like that will be right out in the visitor area for them to touch and sit on," Weldon said.

The exhibit will even include some live animals from the zoo, like African penguins.

Even with new exhibits the goal remains the same as it was in 1934, to make visitors feel immersed in Africa.

"We want them to feel part of nature... and to protect it and be a steward for Africa as well as the rest of the world," Tang said.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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