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Cinnabar Inc. Executive Produces Major Exhibits For New California Academy of Sciences


Sustainable, kit-of-parts exhibit system complements Renzo Piano "green" building
“The new California Academy of Sciences building is a huge departure from the typical black box museum gallery. The public floor is a big space – a giant football field – including the planetarium and rain forest domes and a piazza in the middle. Glass frames the full width of either end – all the way to the ceiling, at 34 feet. Our exhibits need to perform in this marvelous volume, without the crutches of regimented order or separated galleries, ”says Cinnabar CEO Jonathan Katz, Executive Producer for 35, 000 square feet of new, innovative exhibits for the Kimball Natural History Museum in the main hall of the new Academy, which reopens Sept. 27th. 

“Our concept to integrate exhibit structures and the built environment was developed in collaboration with Renzo Piano Building Workshop. It’s what Renzo calls the ‘Kit-of-Parts, ‘” says Katz.

Jonathan Katz heads a creative team that conceptualized, designed, fabricated and is now in the process of installing the new exhibits in six areas at the new California Academy of Sciences, a $488 million, 410, 000 square foot facility, which is also home to the Steinhart Aquarium and the Morrison Planetarium.

Transforming a “starchitect” building into a science museum
A vital part of Cinnabar’s work for the Academy was the development of unique, versatile, sustainable exhibit systems – “kits of parts” with self-contained infrastructure to support a variety of media and graphic displays as well as controlled environments for the display of specimens. These modules were an essential and pioneering solution for presenting and preserving items from the Academy collection without the need to incorporate the infrastructure elements within the architecture of the building itself.

The exhibit system was designed to satisfy multiple programs: in addition to meeting the need to tell Natural History stories, it should be made of sustainable materials, and be flexible and re-usable. Exhibits can evolve with minimal waste but provide a wealth of opportunity for change.

The exhibit modules provide lighting, electrical, AV, climate control, life support and technical systems that are essential to display and preserve a collection of scientific specimens and live animals. Each exhibit kit of parts consists of approximately 30 to 40 components made from powder coated steel and plywood, and supports exhibit structures that are from 8- to 24-feet long, and as much as 15 feet high. The units are entirely stabilized against earthquakes and self-contained; all exhibit systems include climate control for specimen cases.

“They give the building its identity as the California Academy of Sciences, ” explains Katz, “by enabling it to function, in a practical sense, as a science museum, and thereby fulfill its educational mission. It was an unusual collaboration, but one we’ll probably see a lot more of in the future, as museums increasingly opt for this kind of architectural approach.”

Academy exhibits under Cinnabar’s stewardship
-Altered State, an exhibit about climate change, which focuses on California (10, 000 square feet).
Jonathan Katz has a particularly apt background for producing Altered State: twin passions for design and environmentalism, and professional credentials in each. As part of the Jerry Brown gubernatorial administration in the 1970s, Katz helped implement conservation initiatives such as the Office of Appropriate Technology and the California Conservation Corps. Altered State will convey the urgency and power of its subject, drawing upon the Academy’s formidable specimen collection and the findings of its research scientists, along with live animal displays, media, interactives and graphic panels to present information authoritatively, and actively invite the visitor into the conversation.

-Islands of Evolution, illustrating Academy research expeditions to Galápagos and Madagascar, while explaining key concepts about evolution and biodiversity. (10, 000 square feet)

-African Hall, a fresh presentation of this classic diorama hall featuring recreated dioramas, new interactive kiosks and a nighttime audioscape (7, 600 square feet)

-the Naturalist Center, a research center open to Academy visitors

-the Early Explorers Cove, for children and their families

-reinstallation of the Foucault Pendulum

See also:  Collaborate, Design, Engage, Succeed! An Interview with Jonathan Katz

About Cinnabar and the creative team
Cinnabar, ( based in Los Angeles and founded in 1981, is a production and fabrication company that works in film and television, museums and themed attractions. Headed by CEO Jonathan Katz, Cinnabar is the executive producer responsible for assembling the team to conceptualize, design, fabricate and install 35, 000 square feet of new exhibits for the Kimball Natural History Museum in the main hall of the new California Academy of Sciences, including Altered State (an exhibit about climate change and California), Islands of Evolution (about Academy research expeditions to Galápagos and Madagascar), the recreated African Hall, the Naturalist Center, the Early Explorers Cove and reinstallation of the Foucault Pendulum. Cinnabar is known for a bold approach to content delivery, straightforward project management and a track record of getting things done.

Playing a key role on Cinnabar’s creative team was the San Francisco based company, Volume Inc., headed by Adam Brodsley and Eric Heiman. Volume helped develop and execute the exhibit displays’ visual identity and information design system. Other members of the creative team include Cinnabar’s Jeannie Lomma (project manager) and Tom Mullaly (AV manager), Mindy Lipschulz (media production and sound design), First Circle (exhibit lighting design), BBI Engineering Inc. (AV equipment supplier) and Snibbe Interactives (interactive multimedia).

About the California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences, founded in 1853, will reopen Sept. 27th in its new building in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It has functioned in temporary locations since the original facility closed in 2003 due to earthquake damage. The new, $488 million, 410, 000 square foot Academy is home to the Steinhart Aquarium and the Morrison Planetarium in addition to the Kimball Museum of Natural History. The new building itself is a celebrated structure and model of “green” principles: Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano’s “non-museum” (his words) is expected to earn a LEED Platinum certification. Visit

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