The first thing that struck me upon entering the recently reopened, remodeled & restructured Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) is how much more hands-on and visitor friendly it is now as compared to before it closed its doors to the public eight months ago to undergo its first major makeover since the museum first opened back in 1969. On re-opening day earlier this month everywhere I looked throughout the museum's many exhibits I saw people of all ages getting hands-on involvement from museum-headphone wearing folks voting via "Yes" or "No" tickets in the "What is Art?" exhibit, and other participants scribbling down personal histories on post-its to add to the exhibit wall that asks museum-goers, "What events in recent history will have the biggest impact on our future?"
This radical move away from the staid traditional model of museum-goer as non-participant observer and toward becoming encouraged active participant is a deliberate one by the downtown Oakland museum, which invested $58-million into its recent refurbishing. "Interactivity is so important and that is one of the challenges for museums," noted OMCA curator Rene de Guzman in the Amoeblog interview (video below). "Museums traditionally have been talking at people. And you really have to create a new model where you are in conversation with people," said the curator, whose rich Bay Area gallery/museum background includes influential positions at such respected San Francisco arts entities as Intersection for the Arts, Southern Exposure (as artist committee member), and Yerba Buena Center for The Arts (YBCA), where he was the visual arts director (along with Renny Pritikin, de Guzman curated the progressive & popular Hip-Hop Nation exhibit in 2001). de Guzman, who joined OMCA in time for this renovation, pinpoints "community" and "culture" as the two key elements of the East Bay institution, which he put plainly-but-profoundly as, "People telling their point of view."
The OMCA, whose vast and varied current exhibits range from the historic Dorothea Lange photography archive (including her famous Dust Bowl/Depression era shot "Migrant Mother") to a large scale wall installation by Barry McGee (aka legendary Bay Area graffiti writer Twist), brings together varied collections of art, history and natural science in a cohesive effective effort to tell the varied stories of the State of California and its inhabitants over the years.
Among my favorite parts of the museum is the New Gallery with its Coming to California theme that contains an impressive 3,000 artifacts and art works and which the curators say, "evokes not only the arrivals and departures of people throughout human history and their interactions with the inhabitants already here, but also the notion of coming to terms with the influence of California on our individual and collective identities." This includes a History of California Housing Rights exhibit that features a classic 1963 poster for "Fair Housing Law In California" and data on the post WWII demonstrations in LA's MacArthur Park in 1947 when 1500 then recent war veterans loudly protested discriminatory housing practices, holding signs that read "Fox Holes in 1945, Rat Holes in 1947." According to the exhibit, after the war "LA became the nation's leading center for legal challenges to restrictive covenants."
Even more intriguing in this Coming to California exhibit are the tales of the state's workers/immigrants, like the shocking "felony" case from just over a hundred years ago of a young woman named Modesta Avila. Her exhibit photo is accompanied by the note that recalls, "Some protests against the railroad took place at the state level. Some were more personal," as in the case of this 22 year old "defendant" M.Avila, who reportedly in 1889 was "convicted of trying to wreck a train in Orange County." But Avila had valid cause for her actions. The tracks had been placed just 15 short feet from the door of her home. Feeling powerless but agitated she responded by placing two posts across the tracks. For this act of protest the young women was sentenced by a judge to three years in prison. Tragically, Avila never got out, dying inside San Quentin prison before her sentence expired.
Beyond the detailed history of the California railroad track building, that attracted many Mexican and Native American workers in the 1880's, the Coming to California exhibit also tells the plights of struggling Californians of the last century. These include the big concrete sewer pipes that had been dumped down the end of 19th Avenue in Oakland in the 1930's and that became shelter for homeless people (at one point 200 of them) who would sleep in these discarded large circular concrete pipes scattered about the area and accurately known at the time as "Miseryville." The press dubbed the makeshift village "Pipe City." These ramshackle forms of shelter were not unique to Oakland. According to the Oakland Museum's curators, in the Depression era, "From the Central Valleys to the coastal cities, homeless families built roadside camps and makeshift shantytowns like this. With foreclosures at an all-time high and migrants pouring into the state, housing was scarce and people found shelter where they could."
Nearby in the museum is the timely How To Fix A Broken System wall with pencils and blank post-its for museum goers to fill in and contribute their two-cents on the large board reserved for numerous comments. On the opening day that I attended, May 1st, it was Immigrants and Labor Day with a protest against AZ's SB 1070 that had just ended up at City Hall several blocks away. Someone wrote in bold block letters on the yellow post-it "Arizona, has nothing changed in 70 years?" Another interactive exhibit is one that asks "What events in recent history will have the biggest impact on our future? All of us, even historians, can make our best guesses. What do you think have been the most important events since 1975?" Responses to this varied, from OMCA goers writing about technology developments, to Barack Obama's election, to Star Wars, to more personal ones like a person graduating from college, or getting married or having a child.
As anyone who went to the Best Of The East Bay Awards event that Amoeba was a central part of at the Oakland Museum of California the last couple of summers can tell you, the downtown Oakland museum has always been a wonderful space with some fine exhibits. But now, after its makeover, it is way better and far too in-depth to possibly cover here. So go to the museum and witness it all firsthand! You will not be disappointed. In addition to the current exhibits at OMCA, opening on July 31st is PIXAR: 25 Years of Animation, a major exhibition of over 500 works by the artists at Pixar Animation Studios, including drawings, paintings, and sculptures that illustrate the creative process and craftsmanship behind Pixar's wildly successful computer-animated films.
Rene de Guzman, curator @ OMCA, talks to Amoeblog (May 1st, 2010)
The Oakland Museum of California is located at 1000 Oak St., Oakland, CA 94607. Phone: 510-238-2200. It is open Weds & Sun 11am - 5pm, and Thurs & Fri 11am - 8pm. Regular admission is $12; $9 seniors/students; $6 youth 9-17; free children 8 and under. And it offers free admission on first Sundays of the month.