There's something fresh and vibrant about a natural science museum that has an exhibit devoted to roadkill. Unless, of course, you're the roadkill, all stale and stiffened, flattened and gutted, stuffed on the inside, then stuffed inside a display drawer embedded in the grille of a partial SUV facade.
But for the rest of us -- when we visit the Oakland Museum of California's newly remodeled Gallery of Natural Sciences wing as it reopens May 31 -- it will be a delight to pull out the crusty-carcass cabinet and hear the reflexive cries of "Eeew!" and "Oh, that's gross!" from kids and, well, me, and none of us will be the wiser that we've been made wiser, effortlessly learning about man's relationship to the natural environment, even though it's not always a healthy relationship from the unfortunate roadkill's point of view.
Being a very important-in-my-own-mind member of the press, I got a fun behind-the-scenes sneak peek at the still-being-renovated wing a couple of weeks ago. It's the finishing piece of the museum's $63 million makeover ($11.4 million of that for the science section). The art and history galleries reopened with fanfare in 2010, and the science wing promises to be the best science wing you haven't seen yet.
It still won't be totally done, even on opening day (no offense, Southern California habitats, but your section will be the last on the list). Not to worry, because clever museum designers are making the undoneness an exhibit in itself, so people can see what goes into the museum-creating process as mountainous desert ecosystems are still being built and installed.
The rest of the 25,000-square-foot wing is definitely in the final stages. Mmm, it's got that new museum smell, and it's nothing to do with the roadkill. "Essence of natural history," joked Douglas Long, OMCA's senior curator of natural sciences, who led the tour. Right now, plywood crates still hold exhibits of brackish marsh and Sierra red foxes and termite colonies. Boxes are marked "Moss: painted" and "Moss: unpainted." Tool carts are scattered around, spider webs of power cords and blinding orbs of work lights dangle above tables where craftspeople are gluing leaves onto stems, leaf-by-leaf-by-tedious-oh-my-gosh-tell-me-that's-the-last-one-leaf, redoing old, shriveled artificial tree displays to make "nonshriveled artificial yet incredibly lifelike new displays," Long said. Other workers are pushing huge dioramas around on dollies. Woops, I just backed into a mountain lion. I'll try to make myself bigger than I appear.
The dioramas are key. If you remember the museum from several years ago or back when you came as a kid on a field trip, you'll recall the scenes of California's natural landscape, painstakingly reproduced by expert dioramacists. Dioramologists? Dioramaholics? The scenes are encased in huge glass cubes as if they were the crown jewels. (Would-be thieves, be advised: These are not the crown jewels. If you try to steal them, you'll only end up with handfuls of manzanita and microfauna, which fetch zilch on the open market.)
Holy mola mola
Built in the 1960s, the dioramas are historic pieces of art themselves. And while some museums have ditched theirs, OMCA values its collection and will display nearly 80 of them in new ways, combined with very 21st-century interactive exhibits and current environmental research, showing how the Golden State is one of the top 10 biodiversity hot spots in the world.
This time around, they've split the science gallery into seven distinct habitats: Mount Shasta, Yosemite (you get to sit on a porch in Curry Village), Sutter Buttes, the Tehachapis, Coachella Valley, the Cordell Bank (which is not a financial institution, but an underwater mountain off the coast of Point Reyes, with really cool stuff like fiery coral reefs, mola mola fish and cow cod) and lastly (actually, firstly) there's Oakland -- to show how humans and animals have co-evolved in an urban environment and to connect visitors with a sense of place. And what better place to start than where you already are?
You'll find historic images from when this was truly the Land of Oaks -- a massive oak woodland -- and displays of modern-day life with real lampposts and telephone poles and pigeon poo (just epoxy and clay -- a little dab'll do ya) and the pigeons themselves looking down from a wire.
Are they real? Only their taxidermist knows for sure.