Elements of change
Chico State museum exhibit explores the power of fire, water
Curator Adrienne Scott paused for a moment inside the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology at Chico State. She was showcasing a new exhibition there and noted that its entrance features a segment of open floor space where artifacts and artwork surround the museumgoer.
To the left hangs an oil pastel by Chico State geography and planning professor Don Hankins interpreting the “first fire story” of the Miwok tribe, which is indigenous to Northern California. On the right, fragments of boulders that were blown apart by the Camp Fire make up a piece by award-winning artist Eve Werner, who has roots in Paradise. Video depicting serene scenes of a waterfall is projected on a wall nearby.
“I like to pause here because I feel like this area is almost like the theoretical framework [of the exhibit],” Scott told the CN&R on a recent tour. “We don’t really interpret for you. We just let the experience wash over you. There’s a lot coming at you at once … but I appreciate just how it kind of holds a space.”
The exhibit, Fire and Water: Elements of Change, opened last Thursday (Jan. 23) and runs through July 31 (see infobox). Its pieces explore the natural beauty of the Earth and also the power of its elements, highlighting recent natural disasters in Butte County and the threat of environmental pollution and climate change.
The aforementioned waterfall video is positioned next to a 2017 photograph of the crumbled Oroville Dam spillway, giving way to a wall that explains the power of water. Elsewhere, placards showing how indigenous groups used controlled burns to manage land hang across from television news footage showing the aftermath of the Camp Fire. Wildfires, the exhibit notes, have wreaked havoc upon the region in recent years.
“We want to remember the beauty of the Earth, and we want to respect Mother Nature and learn again from Mother Nature our proper place as humans in the cosmos,” Scott said. “Not above or below but right there with it. And how can we be better stewards?”
The exhibit is part of a course in Chico State’s museum studies program. About two dozen students grappled with a broad topic: the environment and stewardship. What they homed in on, Scott said, were the elements of fire and water. Both have reshaped the county and state.
Artifacts donated by survivors of the Camp Fire are showcased, including metal that had melted and re-solidified into what resembled pieces of hardened goo, and a fire-scorched teacup and saucer.
Care was taken to warn visitors about the local impact of the exhibition. The section including artifacts from the Camp Fire is shielded by a series of walls, and signage indicates what lies ahead. The idea was to avoid re-traumatizing survivors, children and adults alike, Scott said. The museum sees thousands of K-12 students per year.
Speaking at the exhibit’s grand opening reception, Eddie Vela, dean of Chico State’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, said that in addition to the museum being a place for university students to gain real-word curation experience, he was pleased to know “we have an exhibit related to perhaps the greatest existential crisis of humanity. … That’s climate change and how it’s going to affect all of us.”
The role of museums in society, Scott says, is to give people space to take away their own meaning from exhibits. Visitors will view them through their own particular lenses, their own particular sets of knowledge. Exhibits try to avoid explicitly telling visitors what they should or shouldn’t know. Instead, Scott says, it’s “more like, OK, bring what you have to this interface—and what is your next step?”
To that end, she believes, the exhibit represents how the elements interconnect with the Earth and humanity through history to the precipice humanity stands upon—that precipice being a changing climate. There are signs of hope, she said, including from the project started by Dutch teenager Boyan Slat to collect 90 percent of Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 2040 to eco-minded CEOs who use their spoils for environmental good.
There is a lot to worry about, but the exhibition also is grounded in the beauty of the Earth, Scott says. Nevertheless, visitors are challenged to not check their brains at the door.
“As [we] all tune into the news and see what’s going on in Australia—and we’ve experienced what happened here in Paradise—we’re becoming more aware of the immediate impacts that climate change is having,” Scott said, adding, “It’s a wake-up call that people have been removing parts of the ecosystem like a giant game of Jenga and not noticing the consequences.”