The yellow-bellied marmot is poised in its diorama, backed by sweeping vistas of the high Sierra. Rustic twig chairs sit on the porch of a mock Curry Village cabin, ready for real-life rocking. A brand-new ancient redwood grove stretches to the ceiling just steps from a sea lion in full roar on a sandy shore, not far from replica Lake Merritt light poles, artfully dribbled with an epoxy-clay version of pigeon poop -- a tad too realistic for delicate sensibilities.

All these distinctive spots merge in the reborn and rebooted Gallery of California Natural Sciences -- which opens May 31 at the Oakland Museum of California with a full weekend of events -- forming a snapshot of the Golden State as one of the planet's top 10 hot spots of biodiversity.

Coming three years after the heralded reopening of the art and history galleries in 2010, the natural science wing marks the final element of the museum's six-year, $63 million overhaul -- $11.4 million of that for the science section -- bringing the city-owned museum up to its full multidisciplinary capacity and firmly grounding it as a world-class institution, museum officials say.

"This is a big moment in the life of the Oakland Museum," said museum director Lori Fogarty, ebullient at the prospect of culminating the project. "It's the first time in the past several years the whole museum will be open all at once."

Well, almost.

Two sections depicting habitats in Southern California will open later, likely in December, said Douglas Long, senior curator of natural sciences, during a recent whirlwind tour of the gallery as workers scurried around making finishing touches. "No offense to SoCal," he said, chuckling. "Think of it as something more to look forward to."

Evolving creativity

The bulk of the 25,000-square-foot space is ready to show off its evolution from a rather routine, mid-1960s grouping of plant and animal displays to a 21st-century, state-of-the-art walk on the wildlife side.

"If you came to the gallery in the fourth grade, it was kind of set up as a broad stroke, looking at various habitats with a bear in a diorama here, a heron there," Long said. "But it turned out people didn't understand that it was supposed to be about California specifically."

Longtime visitors likely will appreciate that officials are, in effect, recycling nearly 80 of the original habitat cases and dioramas -- considered works of art themselves -- now painstakingly refreshed and updated with interactive kiosks.

Alicia Goode adds whiskers to a opossum headed for a display in the Gallery of California Natural Sciences wing at the Oakland Museum of Californi, May 15,
Alicia Goode adds whiskers to a opossum headed for a display in the Gallery of California Natural Sciences wing at the Oakland Museum of Californi, May 15, 2013. (ANDA CHU)

And for the first time, humans are included as part of the natural history landscape.

"It's really something different for a natural history museum," Long said. "Most focus on the nature, with no human presence involved except at the end when they talk about bad humans destroying the planet."

The museum's approach is to explore man's impact on the environment, from climate change to conservation efforts.

"People may have caused environmental problems -- it is what it is, and we're not saying that's good or bad -- but we're pointing out that people are the solution, too," Long said.

To depict that aspect, exhibits roll videos of beach cleanups and tell stories from community groups such as the Friends of Sausal Creek, which is working to preserve that watershed. Visitors also will find projects by citizen scientists -- including one about road kill -- and handcrafted displays from local kids who went on expeditions to Lake Merritt and the redwoods as part of a museum and YMCA project.

For even more human context, elements will be brought in from the art and history galleries. The opening art exhibit in the natural science wing will be "Inspiration Points: Masterpieces of California Landscape," examining works from artists such as Ansel Adams and Thomas Moran.

The place is the thing

In planning the gallery renovation, design teams -- led by senior exhibit developer Don Pohlman -- wanted to convey a strong sense of place, so they turned the gallery into a tale of seven Californias:

  • Mount Shasta and habitats surrounding the volcano. Artists took molds of actual volcanic rock to recreate a walk-through, crawl-through cave.

  • Yosemite Valley, where you'll find the porch and rockers at the faux Curry Village.

  • Sutter Buttes, a range of mountains above the Sacramento Valley.

  • The Tehachapis, a mountainous hub where the Mojave Desert, San Joaquin Valley, Sierra Nevada, Great Basin and Coast ranges meet.

  • Coachella Valley, a desert of palm oases and sand dunes.

  • Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an underwater mountain off the coast of Point Reyes, depicted in a cool, moody display with a full-wall video of fish and underwater life and a soothing soundtrack of the bubbling sea.

  • And last (but actually first when you enter the gallery), there's Oakland.

    "What better place to start than where you are?" Pohlman said. "Plus, it's a really good example of a complex urban environment that still has remnants of diverse habitats, showing how humans and animals have co-evolved."

    Funding for the renovation came in part from Measure G, which voters passed in 2002, providing $23.6 million for museum upgrades. The museum also received funds from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The rest came primarily from private donations.

    Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/giveemhill.

    OPENING WEEKEND

    The revamped Gallery of Natural Sciences reopens May 31 at the Oakland Museum of California, celebrated with a weekend of activities ranging from tours, food trucks and children's crafts to live music, gold-panning and Internet cat videos.

    Where: 1000 Oak St., in downtown Oakland, one block from the Lake Merritt BART station. Event parking is available at the museum garage for a $5 flat fee after 5 p.m.
    When: 5 p.m. to midnight Friday, with public gallery opening ceremony at 7 p.m.; events continue from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
    Admission: General admission to all three galleries is $12 with discounts for seniors and students. Friday, half-price admission for adults, free for those 18 and younger; Saturday, regular admission prices; Sunday, admission is free.
    Details: www.museumca.org/natural-sciences; 510-318-8400, 888-625-6873.