Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay

Oakland Museum of California
& San Francisco Estuary Institute
Oakland, CA

Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay is a multidisciplinary exhibition project designed to engage diverse visitors of all ages in the dynamic and layered landscape of the California region. The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) engaged scientists, historians, and artists to reach across divides between disciplines and practices. The result explores a quintessentially California subject from multiple disciplines and promotes OMCA’s role as a public forum for important California topics and issues.

Above and Below draws on current thinking in environmental history, stressing the active role humans have taken, and will take, to steward and shape the natural world. The content is designed to be illustrative. Different aspects of this historic relationship between people and nature are explored in eight major sections of the exhibition. Throughout these sections, visitors encounter new perspectives and unfamiliar stories, hearing the voices of Ohlone Indians, market hunters, Chinese immigrants, bridge maintenance crews, contemporary community activists, and many others.

Interpretation takes diverse forms in the exhibition. Commentary from historic figures, contemporary scientist and even visitors is actively used throughout the gallery. Media, text, image, art, and artifact work together to provide multiple entry points for visitors to immerse themselves in the exhibit. A “Land Scan” gives a flying view around the edge of the bay, while a digital reconstruction offers a way to explore the pre-contact landscape. Visitors dig deeper into content with new oral histories recorded by the Regional Oral History Office. Additional materials including a “field guide” brochure, and a “Geolocated Guide to the Bay”, take the exhibition experience out to the bay itself.

The local community played a big part in the development and success of Above and Below. Serving as a model for community collaboration for the institution, Above and Below is the result of a significant number of partnerships between OMCA and local artists, community groups, governmental agencies, and local research and advocacy groups, reflecting the wide variety of people who care deeply about the bay and its future. Above and Below tells a complicated story that captures the nuances, uncertainty, multiple viewpoints, and historical contingencies of the region’s history. The project does not advocate for one best future for the bay, but opens the question: how might people live with the bay in the future, and who gets to decide?