Even for lovers of nature and history, natural history museums can sometimes stifle the magic. Meticulously arranged plaster-and-taxidermy-filled dioramas, however artistic, can fall flat compared to their real-life counterparts, and the whole endeavor can come across as static. This is, after all, an era in which we’ve increasingly come to expect futuristic, interactive, technology-based displays.
Which is why the Oakland Museum of California decided to scrap its whole concept altogether. About three years ago, OMCA shut down its natural sciences wing, dubbed “A Walk Across California,” which was, according to Senior Curator of Natural Sciences Douglas Long, “kind of a broad stroke” through California’s coast, coastal mountains, central valley, Sierra Nevada, and southern deserts. “The problem was we realized that people thought it just represented nature in general; it wasn’t coming across that all of this stuff was unique to California,” Long said. The concept of the exhibit, which was mostly composed of dioramas, wasn’t getting fully across to people.
Three years and a complete redesign later, the new OMCA Gallery of California Natural Sciences is a much more immersive — and impactful — experience. Long and the rest of the OMCA team decided to feature seven places that capture the full breadth of the state’s climate, geology, wildlife, and human elements. “It’s going to be the largest and most complete exhibition on the natural history of California in any museum,” said Long. Take the first of the seven locations featured in the gallery: the urban woodland of Oakland itself. The exhibit reflects the human presence in California, with a two-story-tall steel version of the live oak Oakland logo, a house in the Oakland hills surrounded by Mediterranean vegetation, lamp posts by the lake, and more. It’ll highlight, among other things, the tension between humans and nature, as well as the ways in which the city’s original woodland habitat still remains.
While the new 25,000-square-foot exhibit won’t be doing away with its immaculate collection of dioramas — more than 2,000 California species in various preserved forms will be on display — it has tossed aside its former rigid format. The new exhibit will be unveiled to the public on Friday, May 31, at a grand reopening celebration, and will be paired with the museum’s weekly Off the Grid event, featuring live music, beer and wine gardens, panning for gold activity, a natural dyeing demonstration, an encore screening of the Oakland Internet Cat Video Festival, and more. Immerse yourself in the California microcosms created within the walls of OMCA, and see if you don’t leave a little more wide-eyed about our state’s natural history in general. 5 p.m.-midnight, $6 for adults, free for kids eighteen and under. 510-381-8400 or MuseumCA.org