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Oakland Museum gives a sneak peak at renovations

on November 18, 2009

Bright orange and yellow bouquets of flowers sat inside white upside-down hard hats on each table at the Oakland Museum of California on Tuesday, as banging sounds of construction workers echoed from the other side of the wall.

“Many museums don’t change–like, ‘Ugh, look at this gallery, it’s the exact same as from when I was in 4th grade,’” said Lori Fogarty, the museum’s executive director.

But this museum is changing things up, Fogarty said as she offered reporters and marketing agents from various Bay Area companies a sneak peak at the renovations that have been underway for nearly two years.

Forty years old by now, the Oakland Museum was created in 1969 as what the founders called a “museum for the people,” Fogarty said.  The museum is now being renovated in the hopes of reviving its foundational premise with the expansion and reinstallation of its art, history and natural sciences collections.

Fogarty said today that when the museum begins re-opening next spring, she and the staff hope it will offer a completely new experience. “It’s about dramatically changing and enhancing the experience of our visitors,” she said.

For this reason, the Oakland Museum is doing things a little differently. Art will constantly be moved in and out of the museum to allow for the display of artwork from similar time periods or cultures.

Although the museum primarily focuses on Californian art and history, its staff is making an effort to show how the diversity of California is reflected in Oakland.

Louise Pubols, the museum’s chief history curator, said the renovated museum would involve the Oakland community by inviting residents to tell their stories through art display, baby photos and audio recordings of first-person narratives of immigrants’ California experience. “We’re telling California history, but Oakland’s history too,” Pubols said.

The museum staff is also experimenting with interactive tools, which they believe are another way for visitors to tell their stories. Some of the new features include multilingual labels, interactive journals, resource areas, workshops, informal theaters and even electronic drawing stations, where visitors can draw self-portraits that will be showcased in the museum.

According to Fogarty, the art and history galleries were closed to the public for reinstallation in January 2008, and in August 2009, the museum closed completely for the $58 million renovation. The museum recently received $6.1 million in grants from various organizations, including the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. With these grants, she said, the museum has met 97 percent of its campaign goal for the $58 million transformation. Fogarty said that a large portion of the renovation support — $26.8 million — came from Measure G, an educational parcel tax measure passed by Oakland voters in 2002 to ensure that sufficient education continues and educational programs continue to stay open.

Fogarty said that in March 2010, the galleries of California Art and History and many of the museum’s renovated spaces will be open to the public. The gallery of California Natural Sciences and new educational amenities will open in 2012.

Even though the museum is closed, museum staff continue to arrange select exhibitions and off-site public programs. In October, the museum launched a web-based Day of the Dead celebration, inviting visitors to create a communal altar and travel online through Dias de los Muertos festivities in California and Mexico. Earlier in the month, the museum showcased 20 Bay Area artists along Oak Street.

The staff hopes to draw people who happen just to be walking down the street, especially since before the renovation the museum lacked a strong street presence on Oak Street. Previously, the museum had five street entrances to accommodate its four-block radius. Because of the security risks involved with multiple entrances, a main entrance is now on Oak Street.

Inside, the lighting is bright. The once-beige concrete walls are now smooth and white. Some rooms have been carpeted, giving the interior a more comfortable, homey feel.

There will also be lounge areas with movable furniture, where visitors can sit, observe and discuss. Rene De Guzman, the museum’s senior art curator, said it will be “like Starbucks” — but without the caramel lattes.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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