June 26, 2012

Fantastic Cal Academy Earthquake exhibit

Posted by Austin Elliott

Earlier this month the California Academy of Sciences–the superb science museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park that efficiently and gracefully combines a natural history museum, science museum, aquarium, zoo/rain forest biodome, and immersive planetarium dome, all under one prairie-covered roof–unveiled its summer 2012 exhibit all about earthquakes.

The exhibit, titled EarthquakeLife on a Dynamic Planet, premiered on May 25, so naturally I was among the first in line at the museum’s Thursday evening 21+ “Nightlife” event the following week. Let me preface the review of this exhibit by saying that the weekly Nightlife event is absolutely brilliant. I could go on for a while about how much I admire the museum for engaging San Francisco’s intellectually and culturally curious population by revamping the museum-going experience with drinks and a DJ, and based on both its regular attendance and its critical acclaim I’m clearly not the only one. If you’re in the area or are ever travelling through on a Thursday evening, this is an absolute must.

Independent of the cocktails and dance music, the Earthquake exhibit is totally a blast, chock full of engaging interactive displays and invaluable quake education. With the wide array of purposes the Cal Academy serves, it certainly has mastered the concise exhibition of fundamental information. The exhibit races you through minerals, rocks, Earth structure, and plate tectonics–all with very touchable displays and materials–then gives a quick intro to global seismology with a circular digital touch display of Earth’s cross section upon which you can induce earthquakes to watch their waves bounce around inside the planet. A layman’s introduction to how and why earthquakes happen, just like that.

There-when-you-need-it wallet sized quake survival checklist from the Cal Academy

Next the exhibit gets right down to the practical essentials for its local attendees: how to prepare for and survive an earthquake. There are plenty of informational materials for the taking, including a wallet-sized reference card explaining what to have in your emergency kit and what to check for after an earthquake. The most effective display in the whole exhibit is the glass case containing all the essential components of an earthquake kit. To me this is an extraordinary way of conveying just how easy a quake kit is to put together because it gives visual reference for the amounts, sizes, and types of items that a kit should include. Seeing the objects laid out and the modest bin that they would fit in gave me a much more intuitive sense and helpful reference than a checklist ever has.

The biggest draw of the exhibit is unsurprisingly the earthquake simulator. At a crowded event the line may be daunting as only a few people are let in at a time for the ~3 minute experience, but who doesn’t love a good ride, and one with educational value? The premise is smart and relevant. They’ve outfitted a small Victorian living room with shelves, china, books, and light fixtures, and a window digitally overlooking the city. The narrator conveys details about the setting and characteristics of San Francisco’s two most noteworthy historic quakes, and hydraulics put you through them in an immersive and illuminating experience. At the very least it serves as a reminder for tremor-jaded San Franciscans what the Big Ones were like.

My favorite part, and imho the main reason to check out this exhibit, is the new planetarium show.

The super high-tech Morrison Planetarium projection dome has been repurposed for the time being from space to the Earth’s interior.

Produced entirely in-house, it’s titled Earthquake, Evidence of a Restless Planet, and has breathtaking visuals, a great soundtrack, and an impeccable script. Sweeping vistas and maps illuminate the geography of quakes around the bay area and around the world, and expert visualizations of real earthquake computer simulations bring modern research to life. The real strength of the documentary is how it ties global tectonics in to local relevance, including the risk and history of life in the bay area. It also emphasizes the profound connection between the forces that cause earthquakes and features of the planet that have enabled the evolution of humanity and the development of civilization. You just must go see it. It also includes a super humbling re-creation of the 1906 earthquake from the center of Market Street, and a brilliant little live interlude to get you up to speed on current seismicity. I adore planetarium shows, and this one is the best I’ve ever seen (although I may be biased toward the subject matter). Watch the trailer below, and tell me you don’t want to sit back and go soaring through these smartly illustrated lessons.

Earthquake, Evidence of a Restless Planet – Trailer


I hardly have the time or space to say all the good things I want to about this exhibit, so let me simply conclude by telling you you have to go see it, and let it speak for itself. The exhibit doesn’t take much time to peruse, but you can’t miss the planetarium show. I’ll be going back again, and I’ll be trying to buy the DVD of this show once I can. If you live in Northern California you have no excuse. If you live a bit farther away… you barely have an excuse.

Has anyone seen it yet? What did you think?