Museums: Oakland? California? And Everything In Between?

I finally had the chance last weekend to see the new remodel of the Oakland Museum of California.  A few things are still in process (notably the entire Natural Sciences Gallery), but the History Gallery is all spiffed up and the Art Gallery is quite something.  I started with California history and was greeted by a huge board of dots locating where museum visitors are "coming to California" from.  I dutifully put a dot on Des Moines, Iowa, although I've lived in the Bay Area for almost twelve years and have some deep familial roots here.  My grandmother was born in Fresno, my mother born outside of Los Angeles, and my great-grandparents on my mother's side and my father's aunt all lived in Oakland for most of their adult lives.

The Oakland Museum of California (or OMCA for short) is a museum of California, which charges it with catching the broad sweep of California history.  There's a beautiful Native American exhibit, including a Klamath River woman's dance skirt above, that carefully negotiates what is appropriate from Native American culture to display in a museum and what is not.  European explorers sweep through the exhibit, Spanish Conquistadors enslave the local Native Americans, there's tension between Mexico and the US, there's gold and Chinese influence and railroads and earthquakes and prostitutes and the Great Depression... an inclusive California history writ large.

The California history exhibit is incredibly kid friendly, which is great for school tours but initially puzzling to a viewer more used to a "traditional" museum experience.  There's lots of green signs encouraging students to touch, and little cubbies cut out here and there for students to climb up, sit down, and investigate.  I had to look hard, however, to find dates or descriptions for artwork, and it was finally with this fancy-shmancy 1895 San Francisco ball gown from the House of Worth in Paris that I discovered the museum labels were artfully hidden in little wooden boxes to the side of the displays.  But what the museum was doing around children's education in the Hollywood exhibit was astonishing- kids could sit down and design their own costumes, develop their own movie sound effects, and even view old movies in a little theatre.

The museum's purpose is to tell the story of California, and the story of California is the one big idea holding the entire museum together.  Above is a display case of California propaganda (the bear holding the state under "I Love You California" is a favorite).  OMCA is exploring the people and the myth of California, thereby reinterpreting the reality of the state.  I was surprised to find my grandfather fell under the "Military Industrial Complex" display (he helped develop the electrical system on the B-52 bomber during WWII while he was in California, which is where he met my grandmother).  I also found a little garage mockup celebrating Silicon Valley and a great deal about immigration and our southern border with Mexico, including the display of a Minuteman t-shirt:  art and history are always political.

But it's not all about history; there's also a lot of art at OMCA.  And the artists are all Californian, although that's an unwieldy designation.  Old daguerreotypes rub shoulders with Deborah Butterfield's horse sculpture from found objects above (which is so cool, because we have nothing like this at the Asian Art Museum!).  California artists are loosely grouped into categories of "land" (the impact of the California landscape on artists), "people" (the people who are from California, who come to California, and how they identify and re-identify themselves), and "creativity" which covers everything from photography to large sculpture to furniture to abstract art.  I was pleased to find a gallery on "poppies and eucalyptus," because that was my initial experience of California.  There's glass blowing and some absolutely fabulous photography challenging suburbia; I expected Beth Yarnelle Edwards' Suburban Dreams exhibit to be kitch, but it had some striking things to reveal about gender roles and the American family.

Which all goes to say, what is holding this museum together?  It's a question OMCA is quite conscious of, with a video montage at the entrance of the art exhibit featuring California artists defining art and the artistic process.  In the stark, white-walled modern and contemporary exhibit, there's an entire alcove dedicated to the question "Is it art?" where visitors can vote on whether something that's not easily approachable as beautiful can be considered art.  One of the security guards and I had a great conversation about the untitled piece above by Larry Bell in 1967.  It's her favorite piece, and every time she walks by she stops to see "The magnificent artwork inside, what God made."  It also allows her to check to make sure her hair is in place.  I like that the coated glass, Plexiglas, and metal stripping offers an ever-changing glimpse of the viewer, the contemporary art gallery, and the disparate galleries next to it.

My grandmother often talks about growing up in Fresno and seeing all the grapes laid out out to dry into Sunmaid raisins as a young girl.  I discovered the piece above, "Sun Mad" by Ester Hernandez, amongst a field of photographs of naked hippies from the 60's, although this piece was made in 1982.  It typifies a great deal about California, and a great deal about OMCA.  California is about protest, about flying in the face of ordinary convention.  And to me, a child who was raised on little red boxes of Sunmaid raisins (my mother is quite brand loyal when it comes to family history), this piece succinctly sums up California and OMCA.  Graphic, striking, clever, political, and a bit in your face.  The only thing missing in the museum was a mention of South Asians in California; I looked high and low and didn't find them.  But that doesn't mean they're not there.