MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This weekend, the California Academy of Sciences is opening its new Natural History Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The building is being heralded as the greenest museum in the world. It has solar energy panels, an energy-efficient roof covered with native plants, and insulation made from recycled blue jeans. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the museum integrates nature outside the building with the displays inside.

LAURA SYDELL: The Academy is like a temple of sunlight. Its walls are made almost entirely of glass. No matter where you stand in the building, you can see out into the park.

CHRIS ANDREWS: And that is very different to the typical museum, where you go into dark halls and up stairs along alleyways and corridors and so on.

SYDELL: Chris Andrews runs the Academy of Science's public programs, and he runs the Academy's Steinhart aquarium. He shows off a coral reef exhibition on the lower level.

ANDREWS: And when natural sunlight hits an exhibit of living animals, it brings the tank alive in a way nothing else can. And so here, you can see the blues, the orange, the yellows, just a spectacular mix of color in the Philippine Coral Reef tank.

SYDELL: This is building teeming with life. There are a few dark corners in the basement, but even they have openings for natural light. Andrews takes me upstairs to the roof, and we stand on the observation deck. Around us is two and a half acres of living plants. It's hard to tell the exact spot where the roof ends and the park begins.

ANDREWS: You can see it's sort of an undulating, living roof which plays off the seven hills of San Francisco, which, if you look past the roof, you can see one or more of those around us.

SYDELL: The hills in the distance are covered with homes and high-rises. The surrounding park, developed some 125 years ago, is filled with greenery that isn't necessarily native to San Francisco. Ironically the living roof of the Academy is the one spot in the park that has 100 percent native plants. And it's already becoming a research center.

ANDREWS: We're looking at succession up here, whether it's how plants move in and try and take over or prevented from taking over by the species over here and also just the insects and other wildlife that move in here and set up home.

SYDELL: The building was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, who says he grew up loving science and going to natural history museums. He never liked the way most of them kept everything separate. The scientists toiled away in the basement, and the visitors wandered through mysterious dark halls. The green roof is one of the many places his design brings them together.

RENZO PIANO: I loved the idea that in that building, the two things stay together. So you have 20 million species, and we have the scientists still working and exploring the earth. And at the same time, you have young people, children, curious people coming to wonder about nature.

SYDELL: The roof is also a big part of what makes the museum so energy-efficient. The plant life keeps it at about 10 degrees cooler inside than a traditional tar roof. Skylights open and shut to let warm or cool air in and out, and the windows of the building are its air-conditioning. Even in the offices, they open and shut to let in the outside air.

Although the building is new, the California Academy of Sciences is not. It has been in Golden Gate Park for over 100 years. Then it was damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Academy Executive Director Greg Farrington says it was an opportunity.

GREG FARRINGTON: If you go to some very traditional museums, you see what I call the multimedia of 1916, known as the diorama, dioramas everywhere. But that was how those institutions grew up. This institution has had the chance to make itself totally modern all at once.

SYDELL: Most natural history museums were built over a century ago, when scientists wanted to seem powerful and mysterious, says Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. Now, they want to break free of their dark, intimidating halls.

FORD BELL: Trying to develop a museum that is more like the California Academy of Sciences, one that's open to the outside. Some of the exhibits are actually outside. So I think more and more museums, natural history museums, are definitely working toward that.

SYDELL: Bell says today's natural history museums want to draw people in and help them understand their interconnection with the natural world. In front of a recreated Pacific Ocean tide pool, aquarium director Andrews says this museum, with its environmentally green building and its living creatures, is meant to encourage people to take care of the earth.

ANDREWS: And that's what I think this kind of exhibit, which is more of an experience than it is strictly a didactic learning experience, it's a more an emotional experience. I think that's what this exhibit will do.

SYDELL: The Academy's director calls the building an island of life in a sea of life. They hope the new building will help convey their love for the natural world and in turn inspire that kind of passion in the people who come to visit. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

BLOCK: And you can see pictures of that living roof and take an interactive tour of the museum's sustainable features at our website, npr.org.

NORRIS: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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