In 1951, a year before the United States began testing nuclear warheads on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, the coral around the atoll was a vibrant dark blue. If you don’t believe this, you can now see it yourself.
The California Academy of Sciences has put 800 specimens from its archive, many never previously seen by the public, on display in “Hidden Wonders.” The installation, a permanent structure in the museum, is a miniature version of the collection’s storage space, where specimens and fossils line the walls of a dark, chilly room, suspended in time, each with a story to tell — and some still keeping secrets.
“The point of this gallery is to have something here for everyone,” said Julia Louie, exhibit design manager. “Whether you like big cats or little mosquitoes, or everything in between.”
Every case houses something strange and delicate. “Kitty,” a saber-toothed lion from the La Brea Tar Pits, snarls above a peaceful scene of a Xerces blue butterfly pollinating a California lupine. Alien things in jars from ocean depths ogle you through the glass. Rows of beetles shine like buttons. An entire full-sized Galapagos tortoise seems to pause for breath.
Shannon Bennett, chief and dean of science and collections at the academy, sees the collection as the gift that keeps on giving. All 46 million specimens in the museum’s collection are under her purview — “in my care and feeding,” she says — and her team is continually gathering new data from the archived information.
“Every specimen is a single point in space and time that tells us what life was like,” she said. “It’s also a discovery tool for information we can’t even anticipate needing or knowing how to get, so it’s critical to steward and protect those specimens. This room was an amazing opportunity to share those specimens that are so valuable to the scientific community.”
“Hidden Wonders” aims to take visitors behind the scenes of Academy of Science exhibits. Typically, only about 3-5% of a museum’s collection ever makes it to the public floor because most pieces are so sensitive to “agents of deterioration” — light, temperature fluctuation, humidity — that they cannot be placed on display. The black box displays in “Hidden Wonders” are finely tuned to account for those factors, including temperature adjustments for body heat from guests.
Lindsay Palaima Hazen, research collections registrar and self-described “broker of the dead,” is acutely aware of how sensitive the specimens are to degradation. The Academy of Sciences is an active research institution, meaning its collections are used for studies all over the world — so the integrity of the data is imperative.
“At natural history museums, we want to preserve things forever, but we’re actually fighting nature to do that because nature doesn’t want things to exist forever,” Hazen said. “We can’t fight it, but we can slow it.”
Research is what makes “Hidden Wonders” more than just a curio cabinet. The value of a specimen by itself is compounded by what scientists can learn from it through measurements, genetic analysis and, most recently, 3D scanning.
“Part of the importance of collecting is that it’s an authoritative reference,” said Hazen. “There are things that are extinct, or there’s species variation that occurred, which we wouldn’t know about unless we had these vouchers from different points in time.”
A physical reference is also incredibly powerful for retaining cultural knowledge. Artifacts from indigenous tribes, preserved by the academy, can inform traditions being practiced by their descendants.
“We look at how the mallard feathers, the quail top knots and then contemporary basket makers today can continue these traditions that date back to the late 1800s,” said Paige Laduzinsky, senior exhibit content developer at the academy. “We worked with the contemporary Pomo weaver Clint McKay to select which baskets to display, which allows him and his family and his tribe to be able to handle and see material from their ancestors.”
The “Hidden Wonders” exhibit is the public-facing side of an ongoing effort by the museum to make its collections available for institutions at all levels. X-ray imaging, 3D scanning technology and genetic analysis all help create a perfect digital replica of a specimen, which can then be shared without risking damage to the specimen itself.
“Ultimately, as we digitize more and more information in our collections, it’s going to increasingly be more widely available and less necessary for people to come here and visit, reducing major barriers to accessibility for people that live in parts of the world where they could never afford a plane ticket, or maybe don’t have the infrastructure to host a loan,” said Bennett.
In particular, the academy is using its collections as a reference for what may be in store for our environment as climate change and ecological disturbances continue.
“Our mission is to use our understanding of all the living forms and functions and track how they work together to be resilient to climate change,” said Bennett. “And really, nobody else can do it the way we’re really trying to do it.”
IF YOU GO
“Hidden Wonders: Inside the Academy’s Collections”
Where: California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $29.95-$39.95, children 3 and under free
Contact: (415) 379-8000, calacademy.org