San Diego Natural History Museum: “Coast to Cactus in Southern California”

Beth Redmond-Jones

Vice President, Engagement and Education, San Diego Natural History Museum

San Diego Natural History Museum

San Diego Natural History Museum 1788 El Prado, San Diego CA 92101 United States

San Diego, United States
American Alliance of Museums / Excellence in Exhibition Awards 2016


Start Here! Understanding Southern California's Biodiversity




Established in 1874, the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) is one of California's oldest and most respected cultural and scientific institutions.Coast to Cactus in Southern California is the second major permanent exhibition to open at the SDNHM since a 2001 expansion to its original 1933 building.The decision to create a permanent exhibition about the's biodiversity is rooted in the SDNHM's focused mission to promote understanding of the natural history of southern California and Baja California. Scientists in the 's research division, the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias, are actively engaged in collections-based study of this bioregion. All content was developed under the advisement of the SDNHM's curators of Botany, Herpetology, Entomology, and Birds Mammals, all of whom are preeminent authorities on the region's natural history.


Southern California is one of our planet's "biodiversity hotspots" - a place where high numbers of species are found that exist nowhere else, and where habitat loss puts those species at risk of extinction. Southern California's biodiversity is inextricably linked to its diversity of habitats, from coastal wetlands to chaparral-covered hillsides to conifer forests to arid deserts. Many of the area's national and regional parks have visitor centers that interpret the habitat and biodiversity of a particular locality. But before Coast to Cactus, no place existed that interpreted the cohesive picture of this place in one place. Coast to Cactus aims to fill that void - to be the "visitor center" for southern California's diverse habitats.

Coast to Cactus presents certain scientifically supported views of nature as fact - that healthy ecosystems have inherent value, that many natural habitats are under threat, and that conservation of these threatened spaces is to be encouraged. The exhibition is structured as a virtual self-directed walk through southern California's various habitats that presents each habitat in a different season of the year, supporting messaging about habitat diversity and its relationship to seasonal conditions: summer's drought and how plants and animals are adapted for water scarcity; the chance of wildfire in fall; the surprise, to many, of snow in a southern California winter; the explosion of color when the desert blooms in spring.

Advance organizers verbally communicate the main message of each habitat zone. Bilingual exhibit text (English and Spanish) was written to a fifth-grade reading level in visitor-friendly language. Writing to a fifth-grade level maximizes access to content for intergenerational groups and bilingual groups where younger family members may be more English-proficient than older members.

Reading rails relate directly to the animals and plants in open dioramas and landforms, and the rails features some combination of other media: touchable cast-bronze models, rail-mounted specimens, digital media, and simple mechanical interactives. Each habitat features at least one live animal in an appropriate enclosure. Cases display herbarium sheets of native plants from our botanical collections, as well as baskets which are examples of ways in which native peoples of California have long made use of the region's natural resources.

Two elements can be cited as examples of innovative design. A story theater uses a combination of fabricated habitat, projected video and still imagery, animation, multi-directional sound, spot lighting of mounted taxidermy, mechanical visual effects, and a script written in "Spanglish" to transport visitors to the nighttime desert. In another area, visitors step inside an enclosure to experience an immersive storybook-in-the-round detailing the cycle of regrowth following a wildfire. Each phase of the cycle - mature growth, fire, fire's aftermath, and regeneration - appear as a chapter in the story, its characters - the plants and animals of the chaparral - shown through whimsical hand-painted illustration, bas-relief sculptures, models, and animation.

In recognizing that people often have very personal reasons for valuing a natural place that are unconnected to abstract notions about the importance of habitat conservation, the exhibit team created a space in the exhibition dedicated to personal connection to place. "The Attic" as the space is known informally, is made up of experiences designed to inspire visitors to reflect on their own and others' personal connection to place - such as browsing crowdsourced photos of southern California's natural places, listening to recordings of diverse people reflecting on seeing the region change over time, and sharing a handwritten memory of a personally meaningful place.

The Coast to Cactus color palette draws on California's landscape - muted greens, dusty browns, soft blues of ocean and sky - accented by turquoises, yellows, and oranges inspired by hues from early 20th century California ceramics. Wall colors and graphics in each habitat zone have distinct color schemes that draw upon this palette. The typeface - consistent throughout to unify a rich and varied visual environment - is a version of Futura, an easily readable modern sans-serif type. Flooring subtly cues visitors to transitions. Carpet accents the building's original concrete floor to delineate distinct habitat zones. The "Understanding Change" area, which invites reflection on California's threatened biodiversity, has a floor that incorporates locally made classic California tiles. "The Attic" is designed to feel cozy and uses natural linoleum flooring suggestive of blond hardwood and softened by a collection of rugs.


Visitors can approach the habitats in any order - the exhibition has an open plan, with a conspicuous directional signpost just inside the entrance pointing the way to the various habitat zones. The "coast" habitats are situated to the right upon entry; a visitor exploring Coast to Cactus in this way and then working in sequence around the space would be following the coast-to-desert transect suggested by the exhibition';s title. Photomurals, realistic landforms, and open dioramas establish each habitat zone as a distinct space to explore.

The Big Idea of Coast to Cactus is: ?ld"A uniquely varied environment makes the southern California region a place of extraordinary biodiversity that we all should treasure.rd"

In exit interviews conducted during summative evaluation, visitors were asked an open-ended question exploring their meaning-making in the exhibition. All interviewees said that the exhibition was about southern California, its plants, animals, and habitats. Further, "many take-aways were rich and touched on some of the exhibit team's intended outcomes without the evaluator's prompting...While visitors' use of the exhibition is on par with other exhibitions, the meaning-making is high. Messaging in the exhibition is strong and reinforced by the exhibition design."

Summative evaluation also yielded ample evidence that the exhibition is the social space we had hoped to create, in addition to offering evidence that visitors are finding personal meaning in their Coast to Cactus experience. In exit interviews, most interviewees named some sort of personal story or memory that came to mind during their visit. About half noted how the exhibition made them think about their own experience being out in nature, and about one-third connected the environments recreated in the exhibition with their own experiences in the region.

The judges of the American Alliance of Museums 28th Annual Excellence in Exhibition Competition agreed that "SDNHM excelled in every judging category, and noted specifically the good all- around use of interpretive strategies, inclusive content for a variety of audiences with bilingual labels as well as the diversity of evocative, immersive, reflective, and playful spaces."


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