Oakland Museum of California reinvents and reopens Gallery of Natural Sciences

 In Arts and Culture, Community, Environment

Oakland Museum of California

This weekend the Oakland Museum of California reopens its Gallery of California Natural Sciences to the public. The opening weekend marks the completion of a seven-year, multi-million dollar transformation of the entire museum.

On May 30 I toured the new exhibit hall, which focuses on the connections between people and nature, for good and for bad. I personally enjoyed the old theme of a “walk across California,” conceived in part by the late self-taught naturalist Elna Bakker who authored “An Island Called California,” a highly regarded book on California’s diverse plant and animal communities, first published in 1971. Elna Bakker, who wrote the book while designing the Oakland Museum’s former natural history exhibit, vividly described the natural communities of a swath of California, from the tide pools of the Pacific Coast to the otherworldly landscape of Mono Lake.

What was missing from the former natural history exhibit, closed in 2009, was the human element. Today, many museums are reinventing themselves to become participatory, family-friendly and more open to a diversity of people and perspectives.

Nina Simon, the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and author of the Participatory Museum blog believes that museums can be “catalysts for social change.” In a November 2012 TedxSantaCruz talk she gives examples of how museums can foster positive experiences between people who are different from each other. “For me, the mission that is most compelling is the goal to build social cohesion by bringing people together across differences. We live in such a divided world. It is increasingly difficult to find opportunities to engage with people who are truly different from us in a positive way. If museums can build those social bridges, then we’re not just doing great work for our institutions.”

While following modern trends by giving visitors opportunities for hands-on experiences, the new Oakland Museum gallery brings into sharp focus the connections between people and the landscape.

Friends of Sausal Creek exhibit“We are making the human element as prominent as the animals and plants,” says Douglas Long, Senior Curator of Natural Sciences for the museum. “The reason is because all of the conservation issues we have are human made but humans are also a part of the solution. We want to get people involved, educated and motivated. We want them to see California and the animals and plants as the community that we all live in together.”

In the new Oakland Museum natural sciences wing what you will see is “a very complex way in which we are bringing the human presence into focus with the natural history of California,” says Long. “The gallery is much richer now than it was when we closed three years ago. Humans and nature are connected in complex ways and we hope to communicate that.”

To convey these connections — and tensions intertwined with California’s rich natural landscapes — curators selected seven California places that show a diversity of climate, geology, habitats, ecosystems, and wildlife, while exploring current research, contemporary issues of land use, environmental conflict, and conservation projects. Throughout the exhibit you will see evidence of the “tension between nature trying to adapt to a human landscape and human landscapes invading natural habitat,” says Long.

Mt. Shasta exhibit
Visitors begin with Oakland – the urban-wild interface – and then move through Sutter Buttes, Mount Shasta, Yosemite and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The final two spotlighted landscapes, the Tehachapis and Coachella Valley, will open by December.

Seven California places featured:

  • Oakland, a complex urban environment that still has remnants of diverse habitats, underscores the theme, which runs throughout the Gallery, of understanding the human imprint—for better or worse—on California’s diverse ecosystems and the different ways we are connected to it.

  • Sutter Buttes exhibitSutter Buttes, a little known range of mountains that rises above the Sacramento Valley, were chosen as remnants of the vast habitats and species now largely eliminated in this area, and an essential migratory pathway for millions of animals each year. The complexity of land ownership in the region is a case study for presenting contemporary issues of resource management and stewardship found throughout California.

  • Mount Shasta, an iconic landmark, plays a defining role in the region’s ecosystems and presents conservation issues of statewide significance as a major water source. Visitors will learn about the habitats that surround the volcano and how the water from it feeds and sustains local wildlife in a myriad of habitats, and is the source two major rivers, the Klamath and the Sacramento, and the people that depend on them.

  • Yosemite National Park is known worldwide for its beauty and diversity. The gallery will not only depict the magnificence of California’s #1 natural tourist destination as the “Yosemite you know” with historic paintings, visitor-contributed photos, and vintage postcards, but will also depict the long-term human impacts to the park. The “Yosemite you don’t know” will feature the unique and threatened habitats most visitors never see.

  • Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, is one of our nation’s 14 National Marine Sanctuaries protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the centerpiece being Cordell Bank, an underwater coral topped mountain that is teaming with marine life. The food rich waters attract whales and seabirds from all around the Pacific Ocean. The section features several new, large-scale environmental dioramas, two commissioned art installations and a laboratory where people can investigate the diverse organisms of Cordell Bank, from tiny plankton to the blue whale.

  • The Tehachapis, a mountainous hub where the Mojave Desert, San Joaquin Valley, Sierra Nevada, Great Basin, and Coast Ranges all meet, is a key area of ecological evolution. Impressive dioramas will reveal how species like the tule elk were saved from the brink of extinction, where mountain lions thrive, and the new threats California condors face in a changing landscape. (This section will open in December 2013.)

  • Coachella Valley is a desert of palm oases and sand dunes, rocky hills and dry pinon forests. Visitors will learn how uniquely Californian species thrive in this arid yet fragile environment. You will also see how the human population taxes the scarce water supply and how diverse communities are working together to preserve the land. (This section will open in December 2013.)

The $63 million transformation of the museum since 2006 was made possible by a local bond measure, private philanthropy, state bond funds and federal science agencies. Core support from Measure G, passed by Oakland voters in 2002, provided $23.6 million for capital improvements and gave the campaign a strong early launch. Major funders to the capital campaign and the Gallery of California Natural Sciences include the Wayne and Gladys Valley Foundation, National Science Foundation, California State Parks Nature Education Facilities Program funded by Proposition 84, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund (fund closed in 2012), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the museum’s Natural Sciences Guild.

With the grand opening of the newly transformed Gallery also comes the first special exhibition titled, “Inspiration Points: Masterpieces of California Landscape.” Open through August 11, 2013, the exhibit explores the human presence on the landscape through 60 of the museum’s best landscape paintings, photographs, and works on paper.

Now that the museum has invited participation in the Gallery of California Natural Sciences in a whole new way, how will visitors respond? How will they interact with the new exhibits? That is still a work in progress.

You can find details for reopening events at museumca.org/natural-sciences.

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