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UCLA Magazine Spring 2005
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Spring 2005
House of Cards

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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or SucceedExhibiting Collapse

With Collapse?, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County presents a thought-provoking exhibition that draws on ideas of UCLA Professor Jared Diamond

by Scott Van Keuren
Image Courtesy of Francois Confino, Confino Agency

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond examines human-environment relationships in the past and present with an eye toward the collective future of our global society. When the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County began developing an exhibit inspired by his compelling synthesis, the partnership seemed a natural fit. Our researchers at the museum study environmental conditions and climatic change in the deep past, document biological diversity across the globe and examine the complex ways that humans shape these natural landscapes. The institution curates the nation’s fourth-largest natural- and cultural-history collection, which provides an unparalleled foundation for conveying cultural and scientific research to a diverse audience. But there is a caveat: Exhibits are not developed from books. Exhibits are experienced, not read. Collections, not concepts, are the heart of our institution and its mission. Working with Diamond’s ideas thus presented challenges, the solutions to which reveal the changing role of natural history museums.

The exhibit-development team faced several obstacles at the inception of the planning process. First, we needed to design elements that creatively illustrated Diamond’s framework for how human societies recognize or ignore, solve or fail to respond to environmental challenges. Factors that account for the demise of past societies include environmental problems, climatic change, human conflict, the breakdown of trade and exchange, and responsiveness to changes and challenges — both to problems beyond a society’s control and to those that they themselves cause. Our presentation of these concepts had to be articulated through specific historical landscapes or case studies. Second, at its core, the exhibit needed to stimulate viewers to consider questions, choices and contingencies rather than simply outline packaged answers or solutions to past and present environmental issues. As the exhibit title, Collapse?, suggests, at its essence the exhibit poses rather than resolves fundamental questions about how human societies affect their environments. The intent, then, is to encourage discussion among visitors.

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