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Oakland Museum of Calif.: Grand reopening

originally posted by SF Gate
May 26, 2013

For many years the Oakland Museum of California, with its brief to survey the state’s cultural, natural and social histories, seemed a mongrel among exhibiting institutions. But as its full May 31 reopening approaches, after nearly five years of upgrading and reconception, OMCA begins to look more like a purebred prototype of future cross-disciplinary exhibition practice.

The transformation first showed its public face with the 2010 inauguration of the new Gallery of California Art, which smartly mingled artifacts from the history and natural sciences departments with paintings, sculpture and graphic arts.

The non-art addenda, though perhaps intrusive from a conventional art curator’s perspective, vivify some of the contextualizing work often done dully by label text and chat panels.

OMCA staff applied what they learned by redeploying the art and history sections and from visitor responses to them, director Lori Fogarty explained when we met recently. “I’ve learned that science galleries are even more complicated than art galleries,” she said.

Timeliness and topicality have very different meanings in the realms of art and the natural sciences.

“When we started out this project 4 or 5 years ago,” Fogarty said, “the first thing we did was bring scientists from California together and ask them what we needed to be thinking about. And to a person, they said the most urgent issue is climate change and if you don’t deal with this issue in a natural sciences gallery, basically, it would be criminal. … Strangely enough, a lot of natural science museums are very hesitant to do that because of the political climate. We have not felt that threat. Still, we didn’t want it to be doom and gloom, we didn’t want this to be the end-of-the-world gallery, so we’ve tried to balance that with the wonder of nature, the encouragement to explore California, and to say that you can make a difference.”

Natural reality

The science gallery’s design, before revision, was conceived as a walk across California, from shoreline inward, evoking the staggering complexity of the state’s natural reality. “But a lot of people really didn’t seem to get that this was California,” Fogarty said. “They were almost symbolic landscapes.”

The redesigned presentation, which includes paintings and photographs, centers on seven ecologically distinct and threatened areas of the state. They range from familiar and famous zones such as Yosemite, Mount Shasta and Oakland to unheralded or little-studied areas such as the Cordell Bank – an underwater mountain off the Central Coast discovered only 30 years ago and now a national marine sanctuary – and the Sutter Buttes of the Central Valley, where state and private land interests contend in ways resonant with larger environmental issues.

The Cordell Bank section contains visual, scientific and historical high points of the museum’s science gallery. It includes a re-creation – part real, part fabricated – of a chunk of Cordell Bank’s submerged reef.

The Cordell Bank creates a vast upwelling that disperses organisms on which creatures from all over the Pacific periodically come to feed. A hypnotic animated computer graphic illustrates the migration patterns, over a year’s time, of several forms of wildlife, driven by the Cordell Bank’s huge marine influence.

Discarded plastic

Another arresting passage centers on the issue of the Pacific’s pollution by discarded plastic. A taxidermied albatross nestling lies in a case disemboweled to display plastics in its digestive tract that probably caused its death.

Speaking of taxidermy, Fogarty said, “We received a National Science Foundation grant to deal with what we call the diorama dilemma,” meaning whether and how to use the traditional “habitat cases” – made decades ago – of taxidermied animals in simulated native environments. “They’re very compelling … because they have the real thing,” Fogarty said. “They’re … beautiful re-creations, but to a lot of people they seem very anachronistic. They’re not interactive, they don’t ever change, so they don’t really reflect the change over time that is the natural world. … So some museums, such as the Smithsonian, have taken all their animals out of dioramas and displayed them almost like sculpture. They’re on pedestals – very odd in that way.

“But we felt strongly that these cases are our collection, and we could never re-create them today. The labor intensity would make it prohibitive. So … we place them in a whole new context that shows both California’s biodiversity and the urgent environmental issues, but also shows the relationship between the natural world and the cultural world.” {sbox}

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