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What Made California Dreams: History at the Oakland Museum of California

When traveling abroad during the dark Bush years, my husband and I made it a point when asked--whatever country we were traveling in--to say we were from California. Though none of our state's history stacks up in richness to many areas of the world that offer hundreds of years, the allure of San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and other "sunny California" destinations seems to have touched whoever we meet, wherever in the world we happen to be. Everyone wants to come visit and is attracted, especially to the mystery and recent past San Francisco offers.
In fitting tribute to the allure of California, the Oakland Museum of California reopened last month with a bang. My pal Amy covered that event in her blog. The museum apparently underwent $62m in renovations...including a new brand makeover which I love. At first glance it says "OM Ca." Ommmm indeed!

With Miss Miss, we managed to get through just the California History hall and it was truly fantastic. It starts with the Conquistadors and how in many ways, both intentional and unintentional, they decimated the native populations. The testimonial at the bottom of this simulated "ship's wall," complete with porthole showing a loop of crashing hull waves against it, reads, "We came to serve God and His Majesty, to give light to those who were in darkness, and to grow rich as all men desire to do." Typical of the idealism that still represents California today, as its historical loops like the Gold Rush seem to being repeating themselves with each generation, technological advancement or societal need that "draws in the aspirational dreamers."

This is both poignant and ironic. We always think what we are doing is best and right, don't we? Each of us believes we are enlightened and "on the right path" with our actions, beliefs, and judgements--regardless of what they actually are. They are familiar and most likely, what we grew up with. They are what we knew and know. Surely, whatever we are doing, others are being brought out of the darkness.

There is no delicate treatment of the horrible past mass atrocities committed against the Indians, but it's not over-dramatized either. It is just the cold facts, offered in maps, testimonials, books of personal accounts that you can touch, interactive drawers and doors you can open and close. The hall itself truly lives up to the slogan that runs with the logo- that California history is about you.

What I loved most about this experience was its open invitation at the entryway to include the viewer and invite participation, the sharing of stories, reactions, memories. Post it notes are not high tech or super fancy which is a refreshing choice in use of funds (not to make it a super techie project to document the ongoing "curation" of the space with successive visitors.

The hall features some cool new concepts I've never seen in a museum including a literary room, jukebox listening booth, the ability to "unpack" trunks from the immigrant ships to see what "treasures and customs" they brought with them. It also had some nice but sparing use of technology- a very cool freestanding interactive map station where you can enlarge/shrink/move around historical maps plus filmed stories playing inside constructed sets of actors speaking about "life as it was" in times and places.

It presented a simple and gruesome experience of the Bay Area history around Japanese internment camps in WWI , the influx of jobs and people fostered by the expansion of the Southern Pacific railroad and then during WWII as shipyards boomed.

The ironic and timeless invitation "How do you Fix a Broken System" was the message for the Great Depression years and the WPA that came about in the late 30s. The question however, still remains relevant today to a very broken state.

For its tribute to the 1960s, a colorfully lit area and soundtrack invited you in to view the collected stories and memorabilia from 24 guest curators--Californians who lived during the 1960s. The range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds was striking-along with the memorabilia they each shared. Emory Douglas writes, "The Black Panther party fed more hungry children than the U.S. government."
On the timeline of events from that decade, three items catch my eye:

I had never been inside a museum exhibit where I could rock out, harmonizing along to the tunes (along with my husband and another person present at the time) as they played while dancing with my kid. CCR, CSN and more were on the loop. Viewers were asked to reply on sticky notes about "what they remembered about the 1960s."
Perhaps a bit of feel good (there was a bit more to the hall we didn't get to), but wow what a journey!

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