New Exhibit Explores Muir’s Living Legacy

August 10, 2011

On Saturday, August 6, the Oakland Museum of California opened “A Walk in the Wild,” an exhibit highlighting the life of naturalist John Muir. Open through January 2012, the exhibit combines historical artifacts with modern technology to create a fun, interactive learning experience. Curator Dorris Welch says the goal is to portray Muir’s life in a way that captures the attention of a diverse audience, to reawaken the “spirit of Muir” in the general public.

Welch spent over four years researching the intricacies of Muir’s life for this exhibit, research that took her to the Sierra, to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, and even all the way to Alaska. All that travel was challenging, but she says a hands-on approach was essential to creating an exhibit that aims to “inspire people to go out and explore the natural world, and really take a positive step in stewarding the natural world.”

The exhibit is structured around several themes or “realms” of Muir’s life. It all begins with “wonder,” complete with multisensory technology to transport observers to the heart of Yosemite Valley meadows, craggy Sierra peaks, and a snowy Alaskan coastline.

The exhibit aims for immersion: Enter the hollow trunk of a giant sequoia as you listen to Muir’s story of his own experience watching a forest fire from within a real hollow sequoia. Exit the tree and you’re able to follow Muir’s trek from to Yosemite using Google map technology, or have a look at any number of Muir’s original journals and sketches, usually not accessible to the public.

The last gallery in “Walk in the Wild” highlights Muir’s work in conservation and calls the public to action, and also includes a number of original artifacts from Muir’s life.

As part of the effort to bring Muir’s legacy to life, the museum decided to highlight a number of “Modern Muirs,” nine environmentally minded individuals somehow embody the “spirit of Muir” today. They range from Yosemite National Park rangers to Alaskan activist/fishermen to tree planters for Oakland Releaf. “You’ll find they aren’t all cut from the same cloth,” says Welch. Their stories are introduced intermittently throughout the galleries, and serve both to show Muir’s spirit in a contemporary light and to inspire visitors to act themselves.

Highly interactive and multisensory, “A Walk in the Wild” carries on the pattern set with the museum’s recent remodeling of the art and history galleries, and bodes well for the reopening of the natural sciences galleries in summer 2012.

About the Author

Joan Curtis is a Bay Nature editorial intern.

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