Featured Museum: The California Story

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.

"Welcome to California"

Welcome to California!

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.

"Gold nuggets and tools from the California Gold Rush"

Gold Nuggets and Tools from the California Gold Rush

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.

"Kitchen in a post-Gold Rush settlement"

Kitchen in a Post-Gold Rush Settlement

Transcontinental Railroad

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.

"Connecting the Continent"

Connecting the Continent

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”.

"Depression Truck"

Depression Truck

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.

"Pipe City in Oakland"

“Miseryville”, “Pipe City” in Oakland

Automobile Culture

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.

"1913 Cadillac touring car"

1913 Cadillac Touring Car

Forces of Change

"Display in the 1960's Exhibit"

Forces of Change Exhibit

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.

"Diana Nugent at Forces of Change Exhibit"

Diana Nugent at Forces of Change Exhibit

Movie Industry

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.

"Animation Studio"

Animation Studio

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.

"Negotiating the Border - Immigration Exhibit at Oakland Museum of California"

Negotiating the Border

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.

"Gallery of Art"

Gallery of Art

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.

"Migrant Mother by Dorthea Lange"

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936), Photograph by Dorthea Lange

A Place to Think

"Sitting Area in Oakland Museum of California"

Sitting Area in Oakland Museum of California

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.

Outside Seating Area

California Style

"Peace Symbol Sculpture in OMCA Gardens"

Peace Symbol Sculpture in OMCA Gardens

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

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47 thoughts on “Featured Museum: The California Story

  1. Nancie

    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.

  2. Lisa @ Gone With The Family

    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.

    1. Cathy Post author

      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.

    1. Cathy Post author

      It’s always interesting to me to talk to people who lived through the Depression & learn more about it. What a terribly difficult time.

  3. budget jan

    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.

  4. jenny@atasteoftravel

    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

  5. Mary @ The World Is A Book

    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.

  6. Sophie

    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…

  7. Christina

    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!

    1. Cathy Post author

      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.

  8. fotoeins | Henry

    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!

  9. 30Traveler

    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).

  10. Jennifer

    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.

  11. Jordan

    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!

  12. Andrew Graeme Gould

    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!

  13. Deb

    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.

  14. Tom Bartel

    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.

  15. Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque)

    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.

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