Changing Faces of Yosemite


of an Exhibition

by Pete DeCarolis

Published on January 08, 2009, Modified on June 26, 2010

  • Description:

    This exhibition weaves a crisp, neatly packaged narrative from the grand forces that have shaped the awesome form of Yosemite Valley. The wide, meandering path through the exhibition encourages a one-way progression through the five distinct exhibit spaces that make up the narrative. There is enough room for visitors who were ‘driving through’ to quickly make their way without disturbing visitors like myself who were moving at a more deliberate pace. The nature of traffic flow served the exhibition well; each meander and turn of a corner brought me to a new chapter in Yosemite’s narrative. The movement from one exhibit space to another were subtly indicated by changes in color and sound. Flashes of lightning and the cracks of thunder in the exhibit about the park’s geology give way to the sounds of songbirds and rustling leaves as I turned the corner to the exhibit about life in Yosemite Valley. The exhibits about geology, life, and Native Americans are woven together by the similar design of their text panels and a nearly unbroken mural winding behind the text panels and manipulatives. The mural is not a painting but a three dimensional display rich with rocks collected from the valley interspersed with exhibit specific models. It provides a rich visual backdrop and is loaded with hidden surprises that speak to the designers attention to detail. Yet, no part of the exhibit took prominence. The physical layout of the exhibits and the mural reinforced the theme in the text panels that each rock and animal were part of a larger whole.

    An example of a particularly effective strategy used in the exhibition can be found in the geology section. Rock samples at the beginning of the exhibit were introduced by identifying the iconic formation they came from through photos, flip panels, and a hands on display of the rocks themselves. This assigned the rocks a kind of personality. The designers correctly assumed that a sample of granite from El Capitan or Cathedral Peak is far more interesting that a generic piece of granite. Elsewhere in the exhibit, what at first seemed to be a pile of rocks on the floor that simply separated traffic flow, was comprised of samples from Yosemite’s famous formations, each possessing a luggage tag describing in the first person where it came from and how old it was. This was fun because I really felt as if I stumbled upon an interesting find. In fact, you quite literally could stumble upon it since it is located on the floor; and that’s a great place to be if you want to attract a kid’s attention.
    The one abrupt physical change in the exhibition space occurs most appropriately at the exhibit detailing the arrival of westerners into the valley. The natural sounds and soft colors were replaced with the sounds of a player piano and red-hues that were harsh in comparison to what came before. Many lift-and-read text panels detailed the exploits of prominent figures in the park’s human history. Superimposing semi-transparent images of people, places, and writings on the panels kept this area from becoming too monotonous to me, though I don’t know if that works for a family with children. The snippets and panels of artists, writers and entrepreneurs in Yosemite all build to one in particular. John Muir has a significantly larger panel than the 8″ × 10″ afforded to everyone else, not to mention a replica of his home in the park and a life size bronze statue that gaudily shouted ‘take your picture here’. Otherwise, I felt the exhibit did a good job highlighting someone without whom, there may not be a park to have an exhibition about.
    The exhibition as a whole does a good job making its narrative accessible. It doesn’t try to teach all of plate tectonics; it just addresses what forces created the vistas just outside the door. It doesn’t try to argue all of global warming or the history of environmentalism, but stays focused on how those themes play out in Yosemite. The final exhibit asks, “Who is protecting the park now?”. A collage of photos interspersed with mirrors make a not so subtle statement about the answer the exhibit is looking for, and that is fine. The exhibition and the narrative it tells is, in the end, a celebration of this place called Yosemite. Even though it is a bit hokey, if the mirrors can inspire one person to better protect it, I’m all for it.

    Thanks to Linda Gast at and to the National Park Service for the use of their photos.

Latest Comments (3)


by Tisha Carper long - January 09, 2009

Thanks for this great review! I’d love to see some images of this exhibition – can anyone else provide some? I don’t find a website on it either (on the pages). Images, anyone?
Best, Tisha

Good review

by Rochelle Frank - January 13, 2009

This recently added update to the visitor’s center was long overdue.

It is a great improvement over the one that has been there for so many years.

Of course, the REAL display is the valley and the whole park itself— truly one of the most splendid places on earth, and very hard to capsulize in a man-made exhibit.

I’ll admit, though, they did a pretty good job. Thanks for your review.


by Leslie Stone - June 27, 2010

I just joined Exhibit Files and found this wonderful review of our exhibit work. This project was an amazing collaboration of experts and extremely talented people. Thank you, Pete! It is very gratifying to know that our peers are evaluating each other’s work. Those of us in the field know how much of our creative energy goes into developing exhibits, and often times our hearts and our minds. Mine was certainly all in on this one, and we are very happy about the way it all came together. This exhibit was designed after we had been working in Yosemite for 14 years, and it made the process that much more rich and exciting. I would be glad to provide more information on the exhibit, as the Park Service has not yet set up a web site. Some of our photos are shown here in the slide show above. We do have many more. Leslie at Leslie Stone Associates [LSA]

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