Coast to Cactus in Southern California

By Adrienne McGraw

 The San Diego Natural History Museum

A life-size California Grizzly welcomes us to enter Coast to Cactus in Southern California, the newest permanent exhibition at The Nat. Yet the label reminds us that this magnificent creature is now extinct in California. This troubling story is a fitting metaphor for the loss of nature that becomes a subtle theme throughout the exhibition. Coast to Cactus “tells the story of this amazing place we call home” through several immersive vignettes that focus on different habitats in the San Diego region.

The open, airy, and well-lit space offers a number of tantalizing choices. I can jump on board an Airstream in the desert, dive into the mud in an oversized replica of a tidal flat, enter a virtual chaparral, or walk among the oaks or Torrey pines. I first get my bearings at the large topographic map and see what geographic areas are covered in the exhibition. I also take note that the design and production value for this 8,000 square foot exhibition is high, raising my expectations for the experience.

Coast to Cactus offers multiple access points for people of different interests, abilities, and sizes. For the little guys: touchables, crawl-throughs, and things to smell and hear. Bilingual English-Spanish labels are concisely written and generally not over-burdened with too much text. They offer facts and prompt us to think about our own actions. A scattering of historical and cultural objects and recorded oral histories provide deeper context for those who pause to take this in. There are also several tanks with live creatures and just enough places to sit. My visit was highlighted in two areas, both at the edges of wild.

Animals of the desert night are featured in an intriguing mini-object theater where visitors are startled by scorpion, snake, owl, and ringtail cat. Through animation, sounds, and moving animal replicas, creatures come to life as two young campers talk about what’s just outside their tent on this spooky moonlit night. The campers speak in intermingling English and Spanish and I wonder about this unique choice for bilingual interpretation. Young children watching with me are enthralled and do not hesitate to interact with the drama unfolding before them. The darkened, cozy space may also provide a brief moment of rest for the fatigued.

Next I enter a relaxing patio looking out on to a desert scene. Something is scurrying above me! It takes me a moment to figure out that it is a mechanical rat running across the mock-patio’s awning. Rat is joined by raccoon, skunk, opossum, great horned owl, bobcat, grey fox, and rattlesnake in this border between suburban and wild. Through various interactives, visitors are asked to reflect on who is native and who is an introduced species. Domestic cats are among those implicated in this fragile balance. The patio vignette is the most effective area of Coast to Cactus in conveying the story of habitat degradation and loss because this home setting is so familiar and personal.

The Nat hopes that this exhibition will “inspire visitors to start here, learn about the region, and then go out and explore it for themselves.” Coast to Cactus certainly provides many ways for visitors to learn about the region. I was inspired by the little unexpected reminders of the natural beauty in the region and was ready to explore the real thing… either camping in a simple tent or in that very inviting Airstream!