Next time you go to Sacramento, should you take a tour of the State Capitol, make a point to descend down in the lower level of the M. Frederic Butler-designed building. No, not into the underground bunkers that are ready to shelter and whisk away our fearless electeds come World War III. That's too low.
Just off the opulent rotunda with the dome ceiling above, behind the marble statue scene of "[Christopher] Columbus' Last Appeal to Queen Isabella" are nondescript hallways. And lining those institutionally drab hallways are dioramas set into the walls, one for each of the 58 counties in the Golden State. Yes, Monterey County included.
The displays are behind glass, of uniform size and depth, and have been stocked with a considered (or not) array of objects, decoration, typeface and style that someone believed best exemplified the unique character of their county.
To find out more about them, I called the Capitol Museum, the Joint Rules Committee, the Department of General Services, Parks and Recreation. None of them knew who was in charge of them. Maybe they've been forgotten in some bureaucratic shuffle.
There is no natural light down there, only glaring overhead lights as if the dioramas are being interrogated. Some of the dioramas have been there for a seemingly long time, forgotten until their objects have faded out of style and relevance. Columnist Joe Tarica of San Luis Obispo's Tribune News caught wind of his county's diorama and wrote about it being "littered with a variety of unrelated decorative knickknacks including a worthless cobalt-colored mug, faux grapes and grasses, ugly pamphlets, old patches, [and] at least one extremely out-of-date map" on his way to petitioning for a renovated diorama, with an emphasis on luring tourists.
How does Monterey County's diorama measure up? Not that bad. And not that good. There is a depiction of ag fields on the bottom (this works metaphorically, as the earth is beneath, upholding all else above), with replicas of white and red grapes (to represent wine, as does a dusty bottle of wine tucked into the assemblage), asparagus, carrots and radishes. Then there are neat stacks of key buildings on top of that.
The model of the National Steinbeck Center looks fine. The Aquarium looks drab as a shuttered warehouse. Cannery Row is represented by the iconic red Monterey Canning Company building—nice. The California Rodeo Salinas is a photo collage of cowboys bucking on bulls and horses. Laguna Seca figures prominently, starring a toy die-cast Lamborghini backdropped by a barren dirt hill. On top of it all, where the blue (or, if you want to be honest, overcast) skies would go, someone crammed in cutout paintings of the Big Sur coast…and a golf green with a giant ball on a tee. It looks like one can tee off under Bixby Bridge.
All in all, it's not bad. It tries to show the diversity and abundance of attractions, and in the process ends up looking busy and crammed. Does Monterey County need this diorama to attract tourists? Probably not to the degree that San Luis Obispo might. But as a symbolic work in a symbolic place, it can be an opportunity to really shine.
How do the other dioramas do? Click on each picture in the photo album to take a closer look.
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