Oakland Museum of California to open gallery showcasing Oakland’s natural environment

on April 10, 2013

The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) will be opening a new gallery focusing on California Natural Sciences on May 31.  A recent behind the scenes sneak peek of the wing—which is still under construction—showed that it will focus on Oakland’s diverse natural environment and encourage residents to observe the diversity in their own backyards.

“The approach of the new gallery of Natural Sciences in OMCA is to link the natural world to the cultural world. It’s a portrait of California’s environment alongside human’s interaction with nature. We have caused ecological changes, sometimes threats, but we can also be a part of a solution,’’ says Douglas Long, curator of the Natural Sciences for the museum.

Even though Oakland is an urban environment, it still has remnants of diverse natural habitats. For example, the giant, centuries-old oak trees, which are part of Oakland’s identity, host at least forty different species. The staff is working on an interactive program called “Oak Mapping,” through which visitors can track down the history of the oak trees that are in their backyards. The goal is to show not only ecological changes of the oaks themselves, but also the cultural change they’ve gone through as more and more people have built neighborhoods, where some trees were prevented from being destroyed, and some weren’t.

A key part of the Natural Sciences wing will be the dioramas, each about two feet tall by two feet wide, which will show California’s natural landscape and its rich biodiversity. The scenes are encased in enormous glass cubes and look like pieces of art themselves. OMCA is reutilizing existing dioramas from the 1960’s and will display 80 of them in new ways, combining interactive exhibits and environmental research. Right now the dioramas located in the new wing are still covered in plastic and waiting to be put in place.

The new wing will also have a section on Lake Merritt, with special attention to the plastic and trash that is found in the lake and how it’s causing a threat for the animals that live there. The staff hopes to make visitors aware of the role they play in their environment. ‘’We want to encourage them to become sustainable ambassadors of their hometown,’’ says Long.

The staff is reconstructing a part of Lake Merritt, complete with the lights along the waterside and pigeons eating breadcrumbs. There’s even pigeon poo. It’s just clay and white paint, but it sure looks authentic. ‘’It’s supposed to look as realistic as possible—that’s why we include funny details like pigeon poo,’’ says Long.

The staff designers and builders are also working on a simulation of the Redwood Hills, which shows mountain lions sneaking around.  Right now, craftspeople are painting the leaves of the plants and gluing them onto stems, working on details to make them look as realistic as possible. Boxes of leaves marked “painted” and “unpainted” are spread around the floor.

After the exhibits on local nature, visitors will experience six other places throughout California that depict the state’s diverse climate, geology, habitats, ecosystems and wildlife. These include Mount Shasta, Yosemite, Sutter Buttes, the Tehachapis, Coachella Valley and the Cordell Bank, an underwater mountain off the coast with beautiful coral reefs.

Long thinks visitors will be most surprised about how diverse California is. ‘’People might know California is in the top ten hot spots of biodiversity, but what they might not know is that the smallest and the biggest birds of the world can all be found in this state,” he said. ‘’In our dioramas we show more than 1,500 different species. They might not all be charismatic, but they are essential for the ecosystem we have in California.’’

The wing’s opening celebrations are scheduled from May 31 through June 2, 2013. While the wing still won’t be totally done on the opening day, the staff expects it to be fully ready in December. Until that time, visitors can see what goes in the museum exhibit creation process.

The staff is creating a simulation of the Redwoods. Photo: Terry Lorant

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