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UCLA Magazine Spring 2005
From Murphy Hall
Living La Vida 'Lorca'
Stress Fractures
What's at Stake
The Importance of Being Elma
House of Cards
The Quest
Through Women's Eyes
Dynamic Duo
Bruin Walk

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Spring 2005
House of Cards

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Museum exhibits are poised to achieve what the written word cannot. Key to examining complex concepts such as those presented in Diamond’s book are exhibit spaces that can be experienced and brought to life through built environments that utilize lighting, still and moving images, objects and specimens, ambient sounds, spoken word and traditional text panels. For example, set against a looming recreation of an ancient temple pyramid, we consider the failure of 9th-century Mayan rulers to deal with erosion, deforestation and other environmental crises that resulted in the abandonment of their once populous cities. Another section explores Tokugawa-period Japan (1603-1868), where history tells of a culture dominated by Shogun leaders who recognized that they faced key environmental problems. These rulers promoted solutions to curb the destruction of ancient forests used for building, fuel and farming. We evoke the importance of forestry management through the eloquent silence of the interior of a Japanese dwelling. In the finale of the exhibit, a virtual newsroom engages viewers and recaps the environmental and geopolitical issues presented in earlier spaces. It also raises issues relevant to Southern California residents. This component of the exhibit serves two of our fundamental goals: to reaffirm the connectedness of all societies within our global community and to evoke a sense of responsibility for our collective future.

Collapse? communicates so effectively because of the multiplicity of its voices. The complexity of contemporary issues in Montana is acknowledged through the observations of ranchers, politicians, businesspeople and other current inhabitants. It is this virtual conversation that prompts visitors to consider the impacts and effects of this changing landscape. Their individual perspectives illuminate the inherent irony of Montana: Though it appears to be unspoiled and pristine, it is a landscape heavily altered by human settlement and the extraction of its natural resources. In present-day Australia, amid a dynamic collage of modern urban and rural environments, visitors hear fundamental questions about the sustainability of our developed world voiced by key individuals.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s Collapse? is inspired by Jared Diamond’s work, and without espousing specific agendas, it articulates Diamond’s challenge to us: to consider how we inhabit our natural world, and to understand that the decisions we make now — and those we fail to consider, collectively and as individuals — will determine our future as a global society. By posing questions rather than imposing solutions, by creating a dynamic experience rather than presenting a static interpretation, the exhibit stands as a model for the new direction that museum exhibits can take.

Scott Van Keuren is curator of North American archaeology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and a research associate at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. Collapse? opens May 1, 2005, at the Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles 90007.

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