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The California Academy of Sciences museum: A curmudgeon’s view

The quiet entry of the California Academy of Sciences belied the bustling activity inside

Peter and I never met a museum we didn’t like. We had memberships to all of them in New York City, so, of course, when we moved to San Francisco, we joined as many as we could. Except for one. And we finally, made our virgin visit to it, the California Academy of Sciences, on a recent calm Tuesday.

However, we didn’t take into account summer: the perfect time for apparently, all the nation’s children to be there that same day.

As is our habit, we joined instantly, rather than buy single tickets. It’s $34.99 for one person, $24.99 for a child under the age of 11. You’d think the price alone would discourage the number of parents bringing kids, but apparently, along with saving for college educations, today’s parents save up for pricey museum fees, too.

In any event, the cost of membership is a bargain. Your card allows you to attend as often as you like, avoiding massive ticket lines. You get to see the world’s largest digital planetarium, and you meet lots of cute South African penguins. The day we were there, the kids loved those penguins, and kept trying to get at them, despite the best efforts of the museum guards to stop them.

Kids have such resourceful imaginations, don’t they?

Once downstairs, we experienced 500, 000 gallons of water in one place, with hundreds of pretty fishies swimming around in it, and lots of kids once again climbing the glass walls trying to get to them. Parents were getting testy. They were probably imagining how much it would cost to replace all that glass and water, if one of their babies broke through.

The guards seemed to have all run for cover at this point.

On an upper floor, there’s rainforest filled with croaking frogs, free-flying birds (wear old clothing, I’d say), piranhas and lizards of every stripe, though we never got in, due to extremely long lines. Perhaps all those parents wanted to corral their little ones into that exhibit hoping the humidity might dampen their spirits.

Architecturally open, but oddly claustrophobic, the museum had a geography all its own, shaped by the cacophony of tiny voices that sounded like contentious birdsong on a busy morning in the trees. Discomfort was intensified by the nattering, out of control, clicking-clacking of small shoes (all of which seemed to have something in them that lit up).

I know science museums are for the edification and delight of children, bless ’em. But does that mean they actually have to be allowed inside?

OK, there might have been another issue at work, I admit.

We attended Earthquake: Evidence of A Restless Planet in the planetarium, and already keyed up as I was from all that youthful energy, this show terrified me. There should be a warning, like those at Disney World indicating if a kid is too short to go on a particular ride. People’s anxiety level should be tested before letting them inside to see Earthquake, where they learn that there are hundreds of tremblers every minute on our seemingly stable planet. I left there too nauseated to eat, which for me is saying something.

But even if the digital 1906 San Francisco earthquake hadn’t made me want to run screaming, lunching in the unbearably loud cafeteria wiped out any appetite that survived. Think locusts on steroids with amplified microphones embedded in their vocal boxes. That’s what the cafeteria sounded like that day.

We did get to see Claude, the albino alligator that looked like he was made of plastic. I thought it was a representation of an albino alligator, but no, I was assured he was real. The fascinated kids were interested in getting to Mr. Claude, but if they had fallen in, I doubt there’d have been any danger — the reptile moved nary an inch during our visit. He tolerated the children’s natural curiosity with equanimity; he seemed actually dead. (I must admit I fantasized throwing several of the more obstreperous kids into the pit letting that alligator at least have a nice lunch. I know. I’m bad.)

And we got to meet lithe, lethal Lemondrop, the yellow boa constrictor. Snuggled serenely, with her sly eyes, she looked like she’d have enjoyed swallowing one or two of her child visitors. Alas, her glass case denied her that little snack. Which I suppose is a good thing. Kids might shy away from the real education the museum provides if every time they went, there was the danger of them being swallowed alive.

So I did not have a good first visit to San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences.

But, despite my curmudgeonly plaints, I say bravo to it. Noisy crowds mean it’s filled with life, which any museum should be proud of.

And, OK, I’ll be honest: Kids, it’s good to have you there as a reminder to the kid in all of us!

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Read more in Evalyn's "For Better and For Better: A Story of Divorce, Dachshunds and Everlasting Love," coming eventually to a bookstore near you. E-mail: [email protected]