Coast to Cactus: New permanent exhibit at San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) was three years in the making

Mention San Diego to anyone outside the area, and chances are the first things they think of are its beaches and warm climate. What most don’t realize, even those of us living here, is that our region is one of the most diverse in the world, with terrain ranging from coastal beaches and chaparral to urban canyons, mountains and desert.

This terrain makes Southern California one of only 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world — meaning areas that have the highest concentration of different species of any geographic area of similar size.

Now, thanks to a new exhibit at Balboa Park’s Natural History Museum called “Coast to Cactus in Southern California,” it’s possible to experience and appreciate this tremendous diversity all under one roof.

The permanent exhibit, which opened Jan. 17, is located in the Dennis and Carol Wilson Hall of Biodiversity on the second level of the museum, next to its sister exhibit, “Fossil Mysteries.”

Dr. Michael Hager, president and CEO, said the museum’s expansion in 1998 was designed to accommodate the two exhibits. “Together they show our past, present and what our future is going to be,” he said.

“Southern California is unique in that we have mountains next to ocean, then desert. Here in San Diego we have flat mesas dissected by canyons,” Hager continued. “There are different microclimates in each area and elevation and even differences on the north sides of canyons.” Hager, who has a Ph.D. in geology, defines Southern California as spanning the area from Santa Barbara south into Northern Baja.

“Coast to Cactus” brings the diversity of our flora and fauna to life in 8,000 square feet. It includes seven life-sized dioramas from coastal wetlands and sage to the mountains and desert, 12 digital media interactive demonstrations, 35 low-tech (flip card) demonstrations, 11 videos, 13 live animals, four crawl-through exhibits and more than 200 species represented as taxidermy or models.

In one multimedia theater exhibit. “Desert at Night,” visitors can experience what it’s like to camp in the evening when animals come out to hunt. The exhibit includes a Bambi Airstream trailer with more specimens on display inside.

Young visitors can also crawl through a replica of a segment of mud from a local tide flat and discover which animals live in the mud. An Urban Patio diorama overlooking a canyon invites us to learn about sharing space with wildlife and which animals and plants are native. Another coastal sage diorama portrays Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Dr. Michael Wall, vice president of research and public programs, lent his expertise as an entomologist to make sure the exhibit explained the relationship between native plants and insects.

Erica Kelly, senior exhibit developer, oversaw content, working with scientists and designers. The exhibit was designed by the museum’s in-house staff, led by Michael Field, with the help of designer Jim Melli and fabrication services at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

All exhibits are in English and Spanish, said Beth Redmond-Jones, senior director of public programs, who was hired by the museum to cultivate a visitor-centered culture that is as diverse as our geographic area. The Desert at Night exhibit, which is Redmond-Jones’ favorite, is narrated in Spanglish — “just like we hear in the grocery store. We need to embrace the community, the way we all talk and live,” she said, adding she worked with Karen Levyszpiro, bi-national education program manager, to accomplish this goal.

“Coast to Cactus” took three years to build, but was first envisioned in the early 1990s, according to Ann Laddon, vice president of institutional advancement, who oversees fundraising. “It was actually even longer,” she said. “We had teachers asking for this 40 years ago.”

The museum received a $7 million grant from California Department of State Parks as the result of Proposition 84, the Safe Drinking Water Bond, which voters approved in 2006. Laddon helped raise $2 million more. Many of the donors have early connections to the museum. Dennis Wilson, for example, took classes as a pre-teen in the museum and his wife, Carol, a teacher, brought students on field trips and serves as a docent and sits on the board.

“For me, this exhibit is totally engaging,” Laddon said. “I’m a San Diego native and remember my father telling stories about riding horses from Point Loma to Sunset Cliffs and diving for abalone. Until I came to work here, I didn’t appreciate what makes this area so extraordinary. The exhibit provides an opportunity for more people like me to see the richness we have in 90 miles, how fortunate we are and how careful we have to be.”

Hager shares in the excitement. “It is a truly remarkable area and now we can see it all in one place,” he said. “Our hope is that visitors come here and learn, then go out and experience, then return, get more information and go back out.”


What: Coast to Cactus in Southern California

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Where: San Diego Natural History Museum, 1788 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego

Admission: $11-$17

Phone: (877) 946-7797