I’m not a “native Californian”, a title proudly shared by those residents who have lived in the state since birth. But I’m one of millions who have come here for a wide variety reasons: job opportunities, love, family, sunshine, natural wonders, or searching for fame and fortune. The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) showcases the state’s history of attracting newcomers from early explorers to recent immigrants, as well as chronicling the lives of the native people who were here before them.
OMCA also presents California’s influence in the world, significant events, art, and natural sciences. There’s something for everybody — native Californians, newcomers, and visitors.
A Tour of the Oakland Museum of California
During a private tour by Oakland Museum of California docent Diana Nugent organized by Visit Oakland, I was impressed with the wealth of information, exhibits, artifacts, art and interactive displays of the museum. They’ve done an excellent job creating a vision of California history that showcases a multidisciplinary collection of 1.7 million artifacts, art works, natural specimens, and photographs. Special changing exhibitions and projects are also ongoing, including the “1968 Exhibit” organized by the Minnesota History Center which runs until November 25, 2012. The museum was created by the City of Oakland in the mid-1960s with the merger of 3 small museums — Oakland Public Museum, Oakland Art Gallery and the Snow Museum of Natural History — to be a “museum for the people”.
Coming to California
In the Gallery of California History, the theme is “Coming to California” with chronological exhibits exploring key historical aspects: the lives of the native people prior to the arrival of the early European explorers, Spanish colonization, independence, San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire, wartime industries, and many others up to the present. The collections are exhibited in theatrical stage settings displaying authentic artifacts of the time. Many exhibits are interactive, allowing visitors to perform hands-on projects and apply their creativity. These are a just a few of the highlights from my visit.
The Gold Rush
The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, about 35 miles northeast of Sacramento, spurred the California Gold Rush, one of the most famous periods of California history. People came from all over the country and abroad looking to get rich finding gold or starting businesses. Some succeeded and took their wealth to San Francisco, others had moderate success, and some experienced failure. Pictured below are gold nuggets and tools from that time.
This exhibit of a typical kitchen in a post-Gold Rush permanent settlement includes authentic furniture, dishware and utensils. The projected image of the woman at the doorway really brings the setting to life.
The building of the the transcontinental railroad, which began in the 1860s, made California more accessible and provided additional opportunities. However, it was a very dangerous job for the workers (mostly Chinese immigrants) who built the tracks through the mountains using only basic tools and equipment.
The Great Depression
The Depression era brought many people to California seeking jobs and a better life. The Model T Ford shown below depicts how a typical family might have traveled to California. An interesting bit of trivia about this truck is that it was actually donated to the museum in excellent condition and had to be made to look dilapidated, a sort of “reverse restoration”.
Sadly, many people just found disappointment and poverty when they got here. In Oakland, these concrete sewer pipes served as a refuge for about 200 people living in what was called “Miseryville” or “Pipe City”. One of the many interactive exhibits, this one lets visitors climb inside to get a feeling for what life must have been like for these people.
People often associate California with its extensive and complicated network of highways, although bike culture is particularly important and growing here. In the 1910s California had more cars per capita than anywhere else in the country and many people traveled by car from the east to visit the state, some in luxury touring cars like the one displayed.
Forces of Change
In the Forces of Change exhibit, elements of politics and counterculture from the period of 1960-1975 are memorialized in displays created by twenty-four Californians. Forces of Change reflects both individual and collective memories of those who experienced that era.
Whether you’ve ever dreamed of being a Hollywood filmmaker or just enjoy the movies, you’ll find the Creative Hollywood exhibit interesting and full of opportunities to test your talents in the animation studio, designing costumes, or adding sound effects to movies.
Negotiating the Border
In addition to the rich history of early immigration to California from many countries, the current issues and questions surrounding our borders and immigration laws are presented in this educational and thought-provoking exhibit.
Gallery of California Art
In this large and bright gallery, the disciplines of over 800 art works are diverse and all reflect some aspect of California’s land, people or creativity. Visitors can try their own artistic talents by drawing self-portraits.
The Oakland Museum of California houses the archives of renowned Berkeley photographer, Dorothea Lange, one of the foremost photographers of the Great Depression. She captured the essence of the extreme hardships of the people during that time. Her poignant photograph, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936), hangs in the gallery. The archives also include 25,000 negatives, 6,000 vintage prints, field notes, and personal memorabilia.
A Place to Think
There are comfortable sitting areas throughout the museum, in the outside gardens and at the Blue Oak Café where visitors can rest, discuss the exhibits, have lunch, or just think about California’s heritage. The museum presents a full picture of the good, the bad and the controversial of California including issues that have defined the state, shaped its development and impacted the world — technological advances, culture clashes, suburban development, natural disasters, agricultural bounty, religious influences, war, politics and power. That’s a lot to think about.
With a backdrop of lush landscapes and views of Lake Merritt and city landmarks, the building and exterior areas of the museum also reflect California’s spirit and style. The building was designed by award-winning architect Kevin Roche to be a community gathering place. The rooftop gardens and arboretum designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley integrate art, architecture and nature while the peace symbol sculpture signifies California’s activist culture.
There’s much to discover here about California’s rich history, culture and natural wonders and I highly recommend a visit to the Oakland Museum of California — whether you’re visiting the San Francisco Bay Area or if you’re a local looking to learn more about our state while exploring what else the city of Oakland has to offer. After 23 years of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m finally discovering more about Oakland’s history, theaters, restaurants and attractions, including the thriving, innovative art scene I recently wrote about.
The Oakland Museum of California is conveniently located one block from Lake Merritt BART station. Onsite underground parking is also available.
For more information: Oakland Museum of California
For more about visiting Oakland: Visit Oakland
This museum looks really interesting. I am a third-generation native Californian so should learn more about my state!
I salute you, Native Californian! It is a badge of honor!
I love reading about all of your museum visits. I’m a museum junkie too, but for whatever reason they don’t make it onto my itinerary as much as I’d like…
Thanks, Deej. I do enjoy musems, particularly those that are unique, like this one.
What a thorough report of the museum. It sounds like a great place to visit and good to know about. Your photos really bring this museum to life.
Thanks, Leigh. There’s so much to see there that it was kind of tough figuring out what to include in the post.
What an awesome museum! There isn’t an exhibit that I wouldn’t be interested in seeing. I would love to see Lange’s work. You don’t often hear of great women photographers.
Amen! I was surprised and pleased to see her famous photo and to learn that the museum has her archives.
I love visiting museums particularly if they are interactive – and this looks like a great one! I’m hoping to be in San Francisco in the spring and I’m going to keep this in mind – I think my 9 year old would really enjoy learning about California’s history.
This is a great museum for people of all ages. There were quite a few elementary school kids at OMCA when I was there. They seemed to be enjoying it a lot.
Seeing all those can be overwhelming. The Depression was a really dark time for America. That being said, I also love that the museum is interactive. It engages visitors more.
It’s always interesting to me to talk to people who lived through the Depression & learn more about it. What a terribly difficult time.
As a native Californian, thank you for sharing this museum. I live near Oakland and will make plans to go visit this museum and soon! Sounds very interesting and informative. If you haven’t been to the actual Sutters Fort it is an amazing trip!
I haven’t been to Sutter’s Fort — thanks for the nudge to go there. I’d love to see it.
I like the way the woman projected into the scene gives it life. I saw this recently in a display at the Venus Battery in Charters Towers, Australia. In the one I saw the projected image walked and talked also. This museum seems well worth while visiting.
The exhibits are extremely well done and our guide was so knowledgeable and passionate about OMCA and California history.
I love the way the museum has separated different times in history. Looks fabulous and definitely one to go to if we’re ever near Oakland
I liked the chronological order of the exhibits, too. It helped me to keep it all in perspective.
It’s been a long time since I visited a museum although it is something I really enjoy. Thank you sharing this post!
You’re welcome. 🙂
This looks like a great museum to visit. I’m not a native Californian but have spent more than half my life here. I’ve always found California’s rich history fascinating and this all brought them into one place. I can’t get over those Pipe City pictures and how they lived during those dark times.
Pipe City was something totally new to me. What a terrible time for those folks. You wonder how many were able to find better lives.
Great photos ! You make me want to spend a week there with my cameras. Thanks for sharing.
Come visit and bring that camera! Lots of photo ops around this part of California.
A reverse restoration! I hope the previous owners weren’t too upset about their poor Model T 😉
I thought it was interesting about the car. I’m sure the previous owners were pretty happy about the whole thing. 🙂
I was in San Francisco heaps when I was a student, but never visited Oakland. pretty much all I know of it is that people sometimes confuse it with Auckland 🙂 This looks like an interesting and very comprehensive museum, and a good reason to cross that bridge. So much fascinating history in California: the Spanish era, the earthquake, the gold rush…
I never knew that people confused Oakland with Auckland. Not even close! 🙂
I was just telling John about California last night so this is topical – a state with a fascinating history…
Good timing, eh? You’ll have to bring him here sometime.
You know what, the whole museum is interesting, especially the Forces of Change bit. But the Places to Think tops it off for me. I love museums and spend quite a bit of time at the V&A regularly, and always think we should have more spaces that invite to contemplate and think. You absorb so much info wandering around that you need a moment to digest it!
I agree. I thought it was such a great idea to have places for visitors to contemplate what they’re learning and rest up to see more of the museum.
What an interesting piece of California’s past history, the reproduction of that kitchen is fascinating!
The post-Gold Rush kitchen was a big hit. Very creative exhibits.
Out of all the time I’ve spent in the Bay Area, there’s always something I’ve missed. While I’ve been to Oakland’s Chinatown a ton for dim sum and other eats, I’ve not been to the Oakland Museum of California. I’ll have to visit the next time I’m in the area!
Henry, even those of us who live in the Bay Area have underestimated Oakland and what it has to offer.
I’m not much of a museum goer but this is cool. The history of people heading west to California for a better life is so interesting to me (and I’m not really into history either, lol).
What a great museum about the history of California! Sadly, it took me leaving America to be more interested in traveling in my own country. Now on each visit back to the US, I try to include visits to cities I’ve never been to before.
I’m a native Californian, and when I travel in the US, it’s the place I visit most often. This looks like a fascinating museum. I would love to look at the Dorothea Lange photos, and that Pipe City has my daughter thinking.
Whoa, cool! The “pipe city” reminds me of my college dorm! Looks like a great museum. I’ll remember this next time I’m in Oakland.
Thanks for documenting!
Looks like a great museum. I think its doing a great job of educating everyone about its history.
This isn’t the kind of museum I was expecting. I love that kitchen and I love the way it tells the California story.
I know San Francisco city area and Berkeley, but I’ve never got to Oakland. I’d certainly like to do that next time, and to visit this museum, Cathy. The Gold Rush exhibition appeals to me particularly as my native Australia had its own Gold Rush just a few short years after the Californian one, and of course, we learned about that at school.
Dorothea Lange is just such a photograhy legend, and that Migrant Mother image is so iconic. Many reasons to visit, then!
Wow, looks like a great city. We were only in San Francisco for the first time this year and didn’t get the chance to explore Oakland. Now you’ve inspired me. The history in that area is so interesting, I’d love to explore the museums more.
I like going to museums and dicovering history/art etc. From your post, it seems like you had a really good time!
Thanks for this. Reminds me a bit of 1) the Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa–where the mostly Irish started the other end of the railroad; and 2) why I do usually regard California as a foreign country. It is just different.
I have a sister who lives in Milpitas, not too far south of San Francisco. The next time I visit her on the Left Coast, I’m going to suggest a visit to this museum. I bet she has never been there. California has such a rich history and it seems as though this museum does a good job of tying together many of the threads.