"Changing California" — Gallery of California Natural Sciences

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Diversity of Life

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Nadja Lazansky

Published on October 02, 2014, Modified on October 14, 2014

  • Description and goals

    Changing California, OMCA’s Gallery of California Natural Sciences, is a newly renovated 25,000 sq ft natural history gallery devoted to California’s threatened biodiversity. From the entrance label:

    “It’s one of the world’s most biologically diverse places—and one of the most threatened. Profoundly changed by humans in less than 200 years, California faces even more change as the planet warms.

    We’ve organized this gallery around seven real places. Each reflects a unique part of California’s natural heritage, the pressures it faces, and the inspiring ways local communities are caring for it.”

    The Gallery of California Natural Sciences was the third of the Museum’s three core collection galleries to be transformed as part of the Oakland Museum of California’s $63 million renovation and reinstallation project, launched in 2006 and culminating in 2014.

    OMCA’s renovation project took place in phases, with the ambition of the initiative expanding as the capital campaign progressed and fundraising milestones were surpassed. The Gallery of California Natural Sciences was the last of the three galleries to begin the design process in 2009, with the opening in June 2013 and the Gallery being completed and evaluated in 2014. In many ways, being the final of the three galleries, it benefited from the staff’s experience with the other two spaces, and the vision for innovation and change became even bolder as the project progressed. In turn, the unique complexities of a natural sciences gallery—with much more elaborate exhibit elements than in the Art and History Galleries including a number that could not be moved from their existing location during construction and reinstallation—made this component of the Museum’s transformation the most challenging.

    The process for reimagining the gallery began with a number of convenings that brought together scientists, exhibit planners, evaluators, and leaders in museum interpretation. We began by asking: what topics must we address related to California’s natural environment? What are the critical stories in natural sciences that we can distinctly tell? How do we make the Natural Sciences Gallery more welcoming, accessible, and relevant to our audience, including the very diverse community of Oakland? And, perhaps more practically, how do we take the best of our existing exhibits but address the obstacles and limitations of traditional dioramas that can often seem dated, static, or anachronistic to meet the needs of today’s audience?

    We set out to answer these questions through a project funded by the National Science Foundation: “Hotspot California: Bringing Dioramas to Life through Community Voice,” which is documented in this compilation of studies, articles, and research publications. The project set out to create an exhibit that would showcase a changing California—a region of incredible biodiversity under threat by urgent environmental issues—that would, at the same time, inspire Californians to connect to the natural world in some way, whether through conservation action, personal exploration, or through stories of their own communities. And we would accomplish this, not by scrapping our traditional dioramas and habitat cases and starting over with brand new exhibits, but by embracing the “diorama dilemma” and placing these exhibit elements in a whole new context.

    The project called for several innovation strategies, not only to transform OMCA’s Gallery, but as a potential model for the field in re-thinking dioramas in natural history exhibitions. These strategies included:

    • Adding interactive, inquiry-based elements that allow visitors to engage in meaningful ways with the contents of the dioramas and at the same time appreciate the artistry embedded in them.
    • Instilling a “sense of place” by rearranging the gallery from its former generalized layout to showcase real places in California that are biodiversity hotspots.
    • Using scientific and personal testimony from a diversity of scientists and residents who are passionate about their local place to inspire visitors to learn more about these places, visit them, and get involved in protecting them.
    • Explore the selected specific places in the context of rapid change over time through a combination of simple interactive elements and scenario-modeling visualization technologies.
    • Conduct empirical research on how people make meaning with dioramas that will test our hypothesis that in order for people to care about nature, visitors need to hear from people who live in and care about those places. We will test the potential to transfer an emotional sense of place from those who are of the place to visitors in the museum gallery.

    While these were the strategies we outlined in our NSF grant, they don’t fully capture the full extent of what we set out to achieve. More than anything else we strived to make a real, authentic, and profound connection between people and nature—to show their inter-relationship and to reflect on how the story of any people—and, in our case, the story of California—is inextricably linked to its landscape and the environment. While the dioramas and habitat cases remain central elements in this transformed Gallery, they now share equal space with human stories, artifacts, art works—evidence of the impact people have, for better and worse, on our planet and our place within it.

    Our staff has transformed the way we work on exhibits in a myriad of ways. Initiated with the reinvention of the Art and History Galleries, we advanced these practices with the Natural Sciences Gallery, with new types of teams that put aside traditional hierarchical structures and empowered staff positions that bring new expertise and perspectives; by bringing participation and community co-creation directly into the exhibit development process; and by breaking down the traditional silos of disciplines to connect our natural and cultural worlds.

    Our visitors love the Gallery and they stay a long time. They remember and reminisce about their own experiences in nature, they gain new perspectives on California’s natural environment, and many feel a call to action to investigate nature in their own lives or to take direct conservation action.

    The field of natural history museums is grappling with the role museums should play in one of the most pressing and dire issues of our time—climate change—and how to balance serving as a trusted resource while taking on a very active position as advocates and actors in realms traditionally beyond their missions, such as policy and political action. Leading museums are increasingly coming together in solidarity that now is the time to stop talking and—in a unified way—begin acting.

    Our Gallery of California Natural Sciences is just one act along this path. In partnership with our community, with our visitors, and with our colleagues in the field, we are committed to continuing this action.
    [Lori Fogarty, Principal Investigator]

  • Development process and challenges

    Excluding visitors and docents, human sightings remain rare within the world of natural history exhibits. Unless the topic is archaeology or human origins, our species generally doesn’t get in without a ticket. Here at the Oakland Museum of California, our habitat cases and dioramas have mostly followed that same line—depicting timeless, pristine settings without significant acknowledgement of human existence, let alone the major impact we’ve had on these places. When Homo sapiens gets a mention, it’s a note in the label rather than any major time on stage. We celebrate our exploits in the art and history galleries upstairs.

    But we’re really not separate from the natural world—we just like to think so. Whether or not one subscribes to the notion of the Anthropocene as the latest geological epoch, human impact on the planet and the other species with which we share it, is harder and harder to ignore. We are now the primary agents of environmental change. If we want our museums to help the public engage with the day’s pressing environmental issues, we need to move beyond depictions of idealized nature toward the hybrid environments that we actually have, and we need to represent the enormous impact that our species has on the world. This will surely challenge the expectations of visitors and staff, but it’s imperative in a time of accelerating environmental loss. It’s impossible to comprehend the greatly changed California we have now without considering our role in those changes.

    Viewed in this way, bringing humans into the natural history gallery is an obligation, but it’s also an opportunity to strengthen the appeal of the experience. It’s no secret we like to talk and hear about ourselves—even when the stories don’t flatter. Adding humans to the natural history mix greatly expands the possibilities for visitor engagement. It provides all sorts of hooks and affordances that are unavailable if we remain offstage. Acknowledging how people have shaped California supports a contemporary natural history of this place that is more engaging and more intelligible.

    In renovating the OMCA Natural Sciences Gallery, we’ve added a strong human presence to a gallery that previously had almost none. We’ve done this through multiple approaches—none of which we’ve come close to perfecting or exhausting. But the mix seems to be working, and I think we’ve created a platform that will serve OMCA and its community well.

    Of course we’ve worried about the emotional fatigue that comes with considering our environment crisis and how that fits in a leisure experience. But it’s possible to be both serious and fun. It calls for an eclectic, non-reductive approach—a rich mix of experiences that visitors can adapt to their purposes. Early evaluation results suggest our new gallery is a source of delight as well as concern.

    Early work on this project focused on the so-called “diorama dilemma”—the recognition that dioramas are not an all-purpose medium. In the new gallery we’ve sought to balance both the dioramas’ shortcomings and appeal with complementary elements that offer more interactivity and insight into dynamic processes. For the most part we’ve made these additions as context around the dioramas rather than within them, but these efforts were no less effective for leaving the originals intact. As demonstrated by the reopened gallery, OMCA’s cases and dioramas still possess considerable power to engage visitors of all ages and levels of experience.

    Our old gallery was organized as an imaginary walk across California from the sea through valley and mountains to the desert. The cases and dioramas in that gallery represented specific places, but emphasized habitat types over locations. A key change we made was to reframe the new gallery around seven real California places that showcase the state’s incredible biodiversity and the threats it faces. That shift is crucial to some of the other strategies I’ll mention below. We’ve reorganized the cases and diorama around those places, modifying their contents when necessary to reflect their new contexts.

    Including Oakland among those seven places is especially significant. Not only is this part of the gallery the only substantial space devoted specifically to Oakland within OMCA, it is the one closest to home for a majority of the museum’s visitors. It offers opportunities that the other six can’t match.

    Specific places have specific histories that illuminate how those places came to be the way they are today. In the case of California, not all of those stories are inspiring—but they are necessary for understanding. In each of the seven places we’ve included historical elements that reveal how people changed those places from the way they were before.

    Real places also come with real people who have relationships with those places. Through a strategy we called “community voices,” we’ve tried to include plenty of those relationships in the gallery—both to enrich our depiction of the seven places and to model an empathy for place that we hope proves contagious. Through first-person videos, graphics and live presentations, we’ve tried to reflect the experiences and views of the people who live in these places. These stories cut both ways in depicting how humans have damaged the environment and how they’ve worked to restore it.

    We’ve also built in opportunities for updating the exhibit throughout the gallery with science news, political developments and other stories related to the seven places and to California’s environment in general. Most of these are low tech, but flexible, with room for visitor dialogue. The visitors’ own voices are community voices, too.

    Citizen science has offered yet another way to work humans and their stories into the gallery through direct and vicarious participation in scientific research. We’ve tried to create a showcase for local projects and an on-ramp for new citizen scientists. We’d like OMCA to be a place where those new to citizen science can learn about those projects and find out how to get involved. Ultimately, we’re less interested in the data gathering than in the mingling of scientists and ordinary citizens and in inspiring people to investigate the places where they live.

    OMCA’s extensive gardens offer an accessible site for beginning these investigations. We’ve taken the first steps toward making the OMCA campus a place where visitors can develop the skills and confidence to observe and begin to understand what is going on around them. We’ve built in places within the gallery to aggregate those observations and make them part of other visitors’ experience.

    Another dimension of the human presence within the gallery is creative expression. Symbols, stories—and dioramas—aren’t passive representations of the world; they’re lenses and filters that shape our understanding. Admitting historic and contemporary art into the natural history gallery opens us to other ways of seeing. Making things and making meaning are not far removed. The large amount of art we’ve included in the gallery is one expression of that. Showing ourselves making the gallery is another crucial part of adding humans to the mix. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes out of desperation, we’ve done a lot of our work in front of our visitors, and that’s been a good thing for them and us. But we’ve also included multiple opportunities for visitors to make things and to share their work with other visitors.

    It’s not enough just to depict humans in our displays— we need to do it in ways that acknowledge the humanity of our visitors. They’re whole people—not deficient scientists or historians. Our exhibits need to respect what they bring to the museum experience and provide opportunities for them to use it. Our galleries need to work as social and emotional spaces if they are ever to work as cognitive ones. What we can do best is to gently unsettle our visitors—to open them up to seeing themselves and the world in new ways.

    However dire we think the state of the planet, we need to remember why visitors come to our museums. It’s not just for more information. There is so much more to our work than providing content—more than big ideas, messages and interpretive plans. The hard problem in exhibit development is NOT delivering content…but engendering care. We need to work on that as much as we work on delivering the facts.
    [Don Pohlman, Project Director]

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    The gallery is still very young and its lessons are still coming into focus, but a few are worth mentioning:

    It seems clear that using specific places to organize the gallery has helped visitors connect more strongly to the collections and related experiences. Dwell times are way up, and even longtime docents and members have mistaken some of the old cases for new after we shuffled them and added other elements around them. In the Oakland area, especially, providing a strong sense of place has helped us provide more opportunities for visitors to connect the exhibits with their prior experience and knowledge, and for us to connect with our work with that of others in our community.

    It really shouldn’t really be a surprise that mixing media is a good thing. Dioramas are still very effective, but like all media they have their limitations. We have 40-year-old dioramas and cases that have lost none of their power to engage, but they are stronger for sharing the floor with digital media, mechanical interactives and other hands-on experiences.

    Contrary to popular belief, dioramas are not obsolete, but the separating of humans and nature surely ought to be by now. We think our efforts to include humans in a natural history gallery and to represent the overwhelming impact of our species bears further experimentation by this museum and others.

    [Don Pohlman, Project Director]

Log in to post a response.