It All Adds Up

Evolutionary Artistry

In the heart of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences put its money where its mouth is in the construction of its new museum.

From the radiant floor heating to the living roof, every design choice underscores the Academy’s commitment to protecting the natural environment. It’s the greenest museum and the largest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified public building in the world.

Since the museum doors opened in September 2008, three million visitors have explored the Academy’s four-story rainforest and zoomed to distant galaxies in the planetarium. But the most visually stunning of the Academy’s exhibits is the Steinhart Aquarium, and in particular the Philippine Coral Reef Exhibit. It’s the largest live coral exhibit in the United States and the deepest one in the world. 

Bart Shepherd MA ’97, curator of the Steinhart Aquarium, played a key role in the creation of the new facility. He joined the staff at the Academy in 1997, just as the planning process was getting under way. He says, “It was a life-changing experience, certainly—an opportunity to be part of something of this magnitude, and to be involved so heavily in the exhibit design, the testing and vetting of content and new ideas, and then putting it all together and making it happen here on the public floor for people to come and see.”

“Putting it all together” makes it sound simple, but “all” encompasses 170 exhibits, over 800 species of plants and animals, and 38,000 living specimens. “Accumulating that amount of life in the time frame we had, which for all intents and purposes was four or five years—that was one of the major challenges,” says Shepherd. “There was a time when we were actually managing a living collection in two facilities—here in our permanent building as well as in our temporary building downtown. It was about 18 months of being stretched really thin—getting the animals in, getting them stabilized, and then moving them into their new homes. I kept a journal during that time, and it’s pretty interesting to look back and see some of the milestones—the first animals in the building, the first trees in the rainforest, the first release of butterflies in the rainforest. There were a lot of milestones in a very short, very intense period of time.”

The oldest scientific institution in the West, the Academy has a long history of expeditionary science. In 1905, a team of Academy scientists sailed to the Galápagos Islands and brought back what became the core of the collection. A century later, in 2006, the Academy sent Shepherd and several of his colleagues to the Philippines to observe the coral reef ecosystem firsthand, in order to better understand how to replicate it in captivity. “It was my first real underwater experience in the true tropical Pacific coral reefs,” says Shepherd. “From the moment I put my head under the water until the time we left, it was just a series of oooos and ahhhhs. It was truly amazing to see all of these animals and all of this biodiversity in the wild, things that I had only known from captivity or from videos and media. It was a remarkable experience.”

The coral reefs are protected by the Philippine government; commercial collection and exporting of corals is illegal. But through the Academy’s research department, Shepherd and his colleagues were able to secure permits to export corals. They returned to the Philippines in 2008 and 2009, collecting small cuttings and hand-carrying them back to the United States. “We have those now in cultivation behind the scenes in some of our holding rooms as well as on exhibit,” Shepherd says. “Our hope is to get multiple species of coral in cultivation here, new species that aren’t typically available within the public aquarium community, to grow them for our own in-house research projects, for display purposes, and to share with other public aquariums around the country, and thereby reduce the pressure for collecting coral in the wild.”

Located in shallow waters of tropical and subtropical regions, coral reefs are often described as the rainforests of the sea—vast repositories of marine biodiversity, including species that have yet to be discovered. “We’re seeing a lot of that biodiversity disappear due to a variety of human-induced reasons,” Shepherd notes, “so it’s important for us to study those and work to try to protect the rest of what we have.

“One of our goals, of course, is to try to engage people and inspire them with the beauty and majesty within our exhibits. At the Philippine Coral Reef exhibit, you’ll see more than 2,000 fish representing over 100 species. You’ll see hundreds of live corals of many, many different species—all living together, presented in a very artful way. And the hope is that you can make a connection, particularly with children, but with everyone, so people recognize that this is something beautiful in the world they may not have the opportunity to see in the wild, but they know it’s there and it’s important to protect.” 

Evolutionary Artistry
Evolutionary Artistry

Bart Shepherd ’97 did his undergraduate work at the College of William and Mary, where he double-majored in fine art and anthropology. “During that time, I was kind of a closet scientist, I guess, in that I kept aquaria in my dorm room, as many as they would let me. And I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, so I was very much interested in coastal communities and coastal habitats. I just never really clicked with the biology thing while I was at William and Mary.”

After he graduated, he spent a year working at the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach. “I realized at that point there was a ceiling to where I could go without an additional degree in the sciences and biology, so when I found myself in Poughkeepsie, I immediately looked in all the guide books and saw that there was a master’s program at Vassar.” He met with members of the Biology Department and asked to be admitted as a master’s candidate. “And they said, ‘Okay, well—slow down a second. Why don’t you take some classes, and we’ll see where that takes you?’” 

His first course was a biomechanics seminar with John Long, professor of biology and renowned fish physiologist. “I hadn’t done physics since high school, I hadn’t done calculus since high school—so it was a real stretch for me, but I could do it. So there was this kind of amazing confidence thing that came about, where I was like, hey, you know, I can really do this.”

Long had some grant funds to support a research associate and hired Shepherd to help run his lab and work with undergraduates on their research projects. “So I left Vassar two and a half years later with a master’s, having had an incredible learning experience, but also having had a job where I was a member of the department,” Shepherd says.

Does he regret not having majored in biology as an undergrad? “The time I spent studying art and art history and the time I spent studying biology and evolution—both of those things factor into my life here every day at the Academy,” Shepherd says. “I’m doing science, but I’m presenting it to the public using art, using elements of composition. The content is completely driven by science, but we’ve had to make that relevant to people who come through the door every day.”