A Walk in the Wild: Continuing John Muir's Journey


of an Exhibition

by Katherine Whitney

Published on November 30, 2011, Modified on December 01, 2011

  • Description:

    On a recent day off from school I lured my 10-year-old son to Oakland Museum of California’s exhibit A Walk in the Wild: Continuing John Muir’s Journey. This ambitious exhibition sets out to cover a lot of bases, but my interest was how well it engages a family audience. (An excellent, more complete review by Peter Samis can be found in the Nov/Dec 2011 Museum magazine.)

    Clearly organized into four areas entitled Wonder, Adventure, Discovery and Action, the exhibition uses the life of John Muir as lens through which to present the natural world, botany, environmental stewardship, and activism. The exhibition does its best to appeal to multiple age levels and learning styles (offering sensory, kinetic, aural, and visual experiences) and invites visitors to be active part pants at every step.

    The curved mural-sized photographs in Wonder create intimate alcoves where visitors can “experience” several environments that John Muir loved. They smell the forest, feel the “rough crystals in Half Dome granodiorate,” look through a magnifying glass at a spores under a fern frond, and listen to “water music.” The shape of the space encourages conversation. Cedar was a popular scent—“Mom, come smell this. This smells SO good!” But others, like the scent of the meadow or western juniper smelled a lot like a teenage girl’s shampoo. Scent is a hard to pull off successfully, and I give the OM credit for trying. But aside from the stunning photos, which were highly effective and sensory in their own right, the separation of elements according to sense rendered the experience a little clinical.

    Wonder concludes with a film that serves as an introduction and organizer for the exhibit. It tells the story of John Muir and introduces us to eight “Modern Day Muirs,” contemporary environmentalists who are following in Muir’s footsteps (sometimes literally). The film was beautifully produced and had great scenic footage (including views of people hiking up Half Dome which I’d never seen before.) But it was a little long (and maybe too close to the beginning of the exhibit?) for my restless companion. The granite-topped seating was elegant (though I imagine pricey) and invited my son to practice his boulder jumping skills rather than focus on the film.

    The Adventure gallery combines four of Muir’s iconic environments with archival cases containing his journals and sketchbooks. The immersive environments offer full body, active experiences: visitors walk into a giant sequoia, sneak behind a waterfall, jump over a photo mural of a crevasse, and send someone a picture of themselves “climbing” a photo mural of El Capitan. Alternatively, the cases of artifacts allow for more subdued contemplation of the “real thing.” In almost every way the combination of these two disparate activities works here, thanks to the exhibit design. The cases are in the center of the room, and the environments around the perimeter. The close proximity and easy sight lines allow family members to see, communicate, and lure each other into the activity they are enjoying. The pitfall of this design is excessive noise bleed from multiple narrations. A Scottish-accented voice reads Muir in the sequoia and behind the waterfall (a little long and difficult to understand), and five Modern Day Muirs also tell his or her story on command. The aural experience is more crowded shopping mall than great outdoors. And my son was unimpressed with the use of chains to simulate the waterfall – perhaps too urban in their allusion.

    My favorite exhibit for intergenerational learning features two backpacks that visitors can try on. One represents what Muir (a light traveler) would have taken into the wild and the other is a modern-day hiker’s pack. The contemporary backpack is so heavy it requires an adult to lift it out of the bin and set on eager youthful shoulders. A plexi-covered case shows all the items we 21st-century hikers feel compelled to take along with us. On my visit a docent had a group of kids look into the case and asked, “What five things would you take with you out into the wild?” Including that question on the exhibit label would have been a good way to get people talking when the docent isn’t around. Perhaps this appealed to me because I’d just been backpacking in the Sierra, but I also found it a great metaphor for how much stuff we weigh ourselves down with.

    The Discovery gallery is large, open, airy and packed with specimens and dioramas retrieved from storage during the renovation of the Oakland Museum’s science galleries. It’s focus is Muir’s legacy as a botanist, and the exhibits are designed to slow visitors to down for more intimate observation. “These little things are my FAVORITE things to look at,” my son gushed as he zeroed in on a diorama of a brook. “It looks so REAL!” Who knew that a child of the video generation would be so enthralled with an old time diorama? He also enjoyed opening drawer after drawer of specimens. Labels on some dioramas guide visitors to find plants and animals. While this approach is low tech and old fashioned, the labels provide a helpful prop for adults trying to engage a younger companion in close observation.

    Action is the final gallery where Muir is featured for his environmental activism (including his campaign to save Hetch Hetchy Valley from its eventual flooding.) His desk and other artifacts are on loan from the John Muir National Historic Site and reproductions of his hand-written correspondence are artfully arranged but hard to read. Each of the Modern Day Muirs have their say about environmental activism on separate text panels. And visitors can contribute their thoughts on a “Why do YOU love Yosemite?” post-it board or via an old fashioned phone. This was the least engaging gallery for us, perhaps because it was at the end, or perhaps because nothing in it was as captivating as the specimens we’d just been studying in the previous gallery.

    As an engaging family-centered museum experience A Walk the Wild definitely hit the mark. It gave us a lot of opportunities to interact in meaningful ways. And my son had a good time. “It was fun,” is a pretty high rating from a 10-year-old boy who most certainly would have preferred to be outside.

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