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Shedd’s plans for rebirth are a sign that Chicago, even with its troubles, is still great

When museums and cultural institutions double down on their investments — especially now — it’s a reminder that this city still has worth and value.

The Caribbean Reef habitat at the Shedd Aquarium will start renovations in the fall of 2022 as part of an eight-year, $500 million refresh of the museum. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In these troubling times, it’s nice to hear some good news rippling from the warm waters of the Shedd Aquarium.

The Shedd announced plans this week for an eight-year, $500 million transformation that promises substantially new exhibits, research capabilities for the 92-year-old lakeside museum, plus a renovation and refresh of its interiors and galleries.

“We have thousands of species in those historical galleries and we are exalting their biology, giving them larger habitats in which to swim and making the experience more participatory, so it’s really a revitalization of their habitats and the way we bring them to the public,” Dr. Bridget C. Coughlin, president and CEO of the aquarium, said Monday.

We Chicagoans gauge the city’s overall well-being by looking at crime stats, economic activity, the effects of the pandemic, or the level of goofiness coming out of City Hall — and no doubt these are important indicators, but they’re also mercurial. That they rise and fall over the years is part of their nature.

That doesn’t mean these problems shouldn’t be addressed and solved. They better be. But when our museums and cultural institutions double down on their investments here — especially now — it’s a reminder that this troubled city still has plenty of worth and value.

Renovation to mark Shedd’s 100th

The Shedd’s half-billion dollar effort, called the Centennial Commitment, is aimed at improving the aquarium for its 100th anniversary in 2030.

Work on the Shedd’s interiors begins later this year and will carry on until 2026. A second phase of work will then follow.

Under the campaign, the Shedd said it will also increase its programming and offerings to Chicago Public Schools students.

That’s a key improvement, considering the relative dearth of sciences being taught at many city public schools. Given the Shedd’s stature as a research and educational institution, it’s good to see the aquarium is willing to fill in that gap even more.

Officials said visitors to the facility would see more interactive and immersive exhibits, including a new tunnel connecting to the Oceanarium. That tunnel will feature a glass-enclosed, 190,000-gallon, 35-foot-long habitat surrounding visitors and giving them the feeling that they are walking under the sea.

“It will feel like you’re scuba diving without a tank, and instead of seeing the animals in just one place, you’ll see them from all directions around you,” Coughlin said.

The original building’s six historic galleries will be restored, along with their exhibits. Designers will also put back windows that once allowed views of the lake and the skyline.

There are also plans to renovate the aquarium’s popular 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef exhibit, which opened in 1971, but Shedd officials were mum on specifics.

An indicator of better days ahead?

The Shedd opened in 1930 during the toughest of times for the city and country: The start of the Great Depression.

But the aquarium and its neighbor, the Adler Planetarium, which also opened in the bleak year of 1930, were investments in Chicago and a harbinger of better days.

And the Adler shines again after its aged copper roof was replaced last year. The building’s dome sparkles like bright gold — although it will develop a darker patina over time — and is a welcoming beacon on the Museum Campus and another example of a major Chicago cultural institution digging deep.

In Hyde Park, the Museum of Science and Industry is doing the same thing as it completes the final parts of an exterior restoration and renovation of its iconic Beaux Arts palace, which dates back to the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

The projects come — or are forging ahead — at a time not too far removed from the difficult days of 2020, when the pandemic shut down the Shedd and other major museums for months.

And there are rough times ahead of us still. But the museums, by their actions, are telling us that with some work, we’ll get there.

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