Human Nature

Part of Exhibition: California Cont'd



of an Exhibit

by Dan Keeffe

Published on June 02, 2017

  • Description:

    I visited the Autry Museum of the American West on a quiet spring weekday afternoon to see Human Nature, a part of the museum’s California Cont’d exhibition. Human Nature has both a garden and gallery; the bright light coming from the glass doors leading outdoors called to me as I descended the stairs to the lower floor where the exhibit is located, and so I explored the garden first. The garden itself is beautiful and (when devoid of people, as it was this day) peaceful, with a waterfall, pond, and native plants circled by a meandering path. An amphitheater of hexagonal rock pillars looked like it would be a fun spot to gather a group or climb on. It was supposed to evoke Devils Postpile in the Eastern Sierra, although I didn’t see any labels identifying it as such. Signage throughout the garden seemed to fight against the experiential qualities of the space. The largest sign was a plant profile of the redbud tree (I wasn’t sure which specific plant in the garden it was referencing), and a welcome sign occupied the same space as a map showing where to find further information. “Look” tubes were wonderful ways to focus attention but I wasn’t sure what to focus that attention on. My favorite interactive element was a simple piece of slate that could be “painted” on with water. No instruction was given or necessary.

    On my way back in to the building I peeked into the dual-projection media installation California Road Trip. This six-hour virtual journey through California’s landscapes was immersive and hypnotizing. I caught a portion showing the Redwood forest, and a small group sat in the space discussing their last trip to the northern coast of California.

    The Autry’s website describes Human Nature’s gallery as “focusing on four key California stories—Salmon, Fire, Desert, and Plants” and revealing “how traditional ecological knowledge can help current residents understand and care for the environment.” As I entered, a wall full of post-it notes caught my eye, with a prompt asking me to “tell us what you think now and then come back after you have experienced the exhibition.” I have to admit I missed the large prompting question “Are Humans Part of Nature?” and puzzled over the responses for a few minutes before I looked up enough to see it. The sticky notes were delightfully varied and thoughtful in their responses, with many notes referencing ideas that had been written by previous visitors. I did not notice any evidence that people wrote something twice, though, and I wondered if most responses came before or after their owner had traveled through the small gallery space.

    The rest of the exhibit contained the same engaging mix of beautiful finish and “rough” interactive elements. Post-it notes popped up throughout, inviting participation in the ideas presented. The organizing elements of salmon, fire, desert and plants were a thought-provoking way to define the exhibit’s stories. The combination of historical, natural, and artistic objects kept my attention as I wandered the space.

    The exhibit’s signage, like the garden, did not rise to the level of the space itself. Too many ideas were plastered to the walls, especially in the sections about salmon and fire. The desert section was quieter and more successful, label-wise, possibly because much of the information had been confined to clipboards filled with printed pages.

    Leaving the exhibit, I had a clear sense that Native cultures in California aren’t just something in the state’s past, but an important part of its present. I also understood that many parts of California’s ecology are threatened. How these pieces fit together was a little more ambiguous, but the despite its flaws, the inviting and intriguing exhibit made me want to return to explore Human Nature again.

Latest Comments (1)

good assessment

by Kathleen Mclean - June 05, 2017

Thanks, Dan, for your review of Human Nature. Throughout your narrative, you focus in on elements that were design issues all along—the height of titles, the density of text,and the differences in “finish,” for example. The version of the exhibition you experienced is still considered a prototype, and museum staff are planning on revising and tweaking elements that don’t work well. The biggest ongoing issue—one you articulated as well—is “how these pieces fit together.” Perhaps you can visit again in six months and see what has been changed and updated.

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