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A Natural History Museum For More Than Just Fifth Graders

Preserving roadkill, reconstructing lava tubes, and flinging fake bird poop—the Oakland Museum of California has been busy prepping for tomorrow's science wing opening.

A steel-pipe oak tree, highway signage, and the regionally-extinct state animal usher visitors into the new wing. “We frame the entire gallery with the idea that humans have a real impact on these ecosystems," explains Don Pohlman, Senior Exhibit Developer for the new gallery.
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Pigeons, woodpeckers, and goats "don’t typically make it into a natural history museum,” says Pohlman. But if you're going to faithfully recreate the Oakland ecosystem, rats with wings have to make the cut.
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And of course, no re-creation of Oakland’s ecosystem would be complete without this ubiquitous bit of embellishment.
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Museum preparator Cleo Vilett has degrees in biology and fine art. Both came in handy when determining the precise composition (paint, sand, dirt, and glue) and application (high up and with a strong flick of the wrist) required to convincingly reproduce seagull poop.
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“It takes a lot of care to make it look like a textured pile of blurp,” says curator, Lindsay Dixon of recreating a transect of the Bayshore mudflats. Three staffers spent three months plastering the sandy surface of a nearby beach; recreating it atop a rubber block; and collecting, drying, and preserving plants and animals.
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After rebounding from near extinction in the 1970s, mountain lions are now thick in the Oakland Hills—but they’ve since learned to hide from humans. By Friday, curators will have installed more Manzanita bushes and other camouflaging foliage, making it much trickier to spot the big cat.
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If the surface of this mock Navigator redwood looks real, that’s because it is. Around a thick cardboard frame, OMCA staff wrapped real bark “skinned” from specimens at a nearby tree farm. says Dixon. “Within three days of being cut, the bark starts to bind" says Dixon. "In June, the bark is the loosest.”
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With these “granary trees,” the museum wanted to show how communes of woodpeckers turn the dead oak into perforated pantries by riddling them with acorns. But the display had to be “kid proof.” Here, a staffer tests an industrial resin to see what sticks best without wetting or coloring the wood.
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When lava seeps underground, it can create molten conduits that harden into “lava tubes.” Using latex molds as big as 4-by-6 feet, the OMCA staff were able to simulate a composite of tubes from around the volcanic Sutter Buttes region. Non-claustrophic museum goers are free to climb all the way through.
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A mock-up of the underwater mountain, the Cordell Bank, which rises off the coast of Point Reyes. Among sea anemones and other flashy bits of coral lolls the decorator crab (camouflaged, center).
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This rosy rockfish came from Oakland's Chinatown, just up the street.
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All of the anemone are plastic. Their white tentacles are painted individually.
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Cleo Vilett only has a few hundred more to go.
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The roadkill exhibit will be found, appropriately enough, in the engine block of this Ford Expedition. “This will help people understand the impact we have on local wildlife,” explains Douglas Long, the wing's senior curator. The specimens on display—a seagull, a rat, and a squirrel—are real and locally collected.
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“It’s actually pretty tough to taxidermy something once it’s been splattered all over the road,” says Long. Museum taxidermist, Alica Goode agrees: “Usually, my job is to make something look like it’s alive again. This is a little more complicated.”
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After a four-year wait, on Friday, the Oakland Museum of California finally raises the curtain on its reinvented Gallery of California Natural Sciences. Ditching the glass case and tableau approach to science education, the OMCA curators have re-created five distinct ecosystems from around California—in all their weird, wonderful, and smelly diversity. Oakland, Yosemite, Mount Shasta, the Central Valley’s Sutter Butte’s and the continental shelf’s Cordell Bank are all represented (with two more coming this winter). These ecological niches are presented as more than just pristine and isolated nature, but as part of a much larger system in which we humans exist.

Building, painting, molding, and stuffing five ecosystems into a single museum floor in downtown Oakland was no easy task. Above, a preview of the science exhibit just before it opens.

The Gallery of California Natural Sciences opening party starts at Oakland Museum of California at 7pm. $12 admission; $9 seniors and students; $6 for children under 17.

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