A Peninsula institution for families and animal lovers alike, CuriOdyssey has endured financial hardships and tree-toppling storms thanks to unwavering community support.
On a recent sunny day at Coyote Point Recreation Area, clear skies blended into the blue of the bay, only separated from each other by the San Francisco skyline in the distance. Dozens of children, each carrying clipboards twice the size of their faces, scampered alongside tie-dye clad camp counselors as they eagerly entered the CuriOdyssey zoo.
Looking at the bustle, it’s hard to tell that the San Mateo science playground, museum and zoo has only been open since June 3 following a nearly three-month closure as a result of winter storm damage.
Although the nonprofit faced losses in the six-figure range, it kept its animals healthy and worked on its expansion plan during the closure. The latest phase of that expansion will be unveiled this Saturday with a grand opening for the Bay Gallery and Labs, a new building that will significantly add to CuriOdyssey’s overall footprint and showcase its newest exhibit in six years: ViewPoint. The exhibit’s goal is to show how the natural environment around Coyote Point and the Bay Area converges with human intervention.
CuriOdyssey is no stranger to hardship. The 70-year-old Peninsula institution almost closed as a result of financial challenges in 2006 but was saved with a $500,000 campaign completed in 30 days, according to its website. During the pandemic, donations continued to help sustain CuriOdyssey as the organization appointed a new executive director, adapted exhibits and furloughed staff, and contributions have supported CuriOdyssey’s storm recovery. Community support has also been evident in the jump in annual average attendance from 70,000 to 200,000 over the last decade.
CuriOdyssey was left without electricity when a tree fell on the transformer site at Coyote Point in March. Situated on a bluff with a eucalyptus tree grove, CuriOdyssey is “uniquely vulnerable to the rise in storm intensity” from climate change, the organization said in a March update. The eucalyptus trees have shallow roots and are susceptible to coming down during storms. One hundred of them fell and blocked access to the museum, cluttering the road with debris. Atmospheric rivers also flooded the main exhibit area, and a redwood tree smashed through the zoo’s otter viewing window (thankfully, the otter was not inside). Trees also poked holes in building roofs and other animal habitats. Citing safety concerns, CuriOdyssey announced a temporary closure.
“It was a hard time for us, not knowing how long we would be closed,” said Sierra Gonzalez, director of sales and marketing. “We also took a lot of time to take a step back and think about our training and our processes…At the end of it, we felt very united and anxious to reopen.”
Community contributions have supported CuriOdyssey’s storm recovery. Courtesy CuriOdyssey.
CuriOdyssey is still operating on a generator for electricity, but San Mateo County crews have cleared all of the downed trees. While the county is still recovering from the storm damage, there will be follow-up discussions about canopy restoration at Coyote Point, Gonzalez said.
Fortunately, people and animals were safe, and the repairs were manageable, Gonzalez said. Caretakers came in daily once they were cleared by the county to monitor the animals. (CuriOdyssey is home to 100 mostly native animals ranging from snakes and owls to a bobcat and a gray fox.) Meanwhile, Eric Maschwitz’s team was finishing up the ViewPoint exhibit within the 3,000-square-foot Bay Gallery and Labs. The new building marks a 30% increase in exhibit area, with two learning labs and glass doors to take advantage of bayside views.
The exhibit took around 18 months to complete. While CuriOdyssey was closed to the public in the spring, Maschwitz and his team worked at their on-site shop.
“For a while we were racing towards the finish line that hadn’t even been painted on the ground yet,” said Maschwitz, CuriOdyssey’s director of exhibits.
Maschwitz, who has been with the organization for 15 years, was formally trained as an artist. After learning about sculpture and doing a brief stint with special effects (which is evident in the quality of the fog in his exhibits), he ended up working for a company manufacturing museum exhibits, joining CuriOdyssey a few years later.
“It felt like the culmination of my skill set and interests,” Maschwitz said.
ViewPoint, the exhibit Maschwitz created, was made entirely in-house, which is part of CuriOdyssey’s process. Ideas for exhibits come from classroom science experiments and observations of interesting phenomena, Maschwitz said. The team keeps a running list of ideas like these and then centers a theme around them.
“You might notice two objects that make a cool sound when they bang together,” Maschwitz said. “I look at things like that and say, ‘Is this repeatable? Can that somehow become an exhibit?’”
ViewPoint takes inspiration from the natural phenomena at Coyote Point and in the broader Bay Area, including the vistas, water and fog. Pieces within the exhibit are meant to highlight how the natural environment around us converges with human intervention.
A piece called Data Window projects wind patterns and real-time flight data onto a transparent piece of glass. Guests can follow this data while watching planes touch down at SFO through the Bay Gallery windows.
Another piece, called Undulations, portrays liquid resembling ocean waves as it interacts with a manufactured sea wall, showing how natural phenomena can change course.
An exhibit that Maschwitz anticipates being popular is the Fog Bowl, which was revamped from its other location in the old building. A big stainless steel cauldron of pillowy fog that you can scoop out and shape represents the low-lying areas that Bay Area fog tends to rest in after being pushed in from the marine layer over the Pacific Ocean. It’s both ethereal and mesmerizing, Maschwitz said.
“It will be really great to see the space activated with visitors. The ultimate goal is to have people exploring, engaging or screaming loudly with excitement when they’re playing with the fog,” Maschwitz said.
The building represents the culmination of phase one of CuriOdyssey’s campus expansion following the Whoosh! Physics in Action playground that was unveiled in November 2021 and designed for children of all abilities.
“We strive to be inclusive and accessible to all of our guests, including those that might have physical disabilities or sensory issues,” Gonzalez said.
Phase two is set to be completed at the end of 2024 and includes a significantly larger otter exhibit. The original enclosure is considered to be too small for North American river otters, according to Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards.
Later phases will expand zoo facilities, administrative offices, exhibit space and classrooms.
CuriOdyssey’s new facilities will be visited by generations to come, as San Mateo County recently renewed the nonprofit’s lease for the next 60 years.
“It feels like a huge vote of confidence,” Gonzalez said. “We’re really grateful for their support and the continued support from private donations and foundations to keep us on our campus expansion path.”
For now, it’s time to celebrate the accomplishments and resilience of the past few months.
“The silver lining to our closure time is that it has given us an opportunity to present ourselves to the public, when they have fresh eyes and can rediscover why they love CuriOdyssey,” Gonzalez added.
The grand opening of CuriOdyssey’s newest building, the Bay Gallery, and its inaugural exhibition, ViewPoint, is on Saturday, June 24, from 10 a.m.-3.p.m. at CuriOdyssey, 1651 Coyote Point Drive, San Mateo. Enjoy special animal presentations, hands-on activities, a food truck and more. For more information, visit curiodyssey.org.