Oakland Museum of California celebrates 50th birthday
on September 27, 2019
A line of food trucks wrapping the corner of Oak and 10th Streets isn’t unusual for a Friday night at the Oakland Museum of California, but this time, inside the gardens, community members and staff were celebrating the museum’s 50th birthday. In the central courtyard, families, regulars, and newcomers sat on picnic blankets and enjoyed the warm summer evening with a postcard view of the city’s iconic lake. Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” streamed out of speakers, and young children were invited to the dance floor.
April Yee is a regular at OMCA’s Friday Nights, an initiative that brings community members to the museum’s grounds, and she was camped out on a blanket, sitting with her brother while their respective kids ran around. “I think the museum is a cultural hub of the whole East Bay, really. I really appreciate the exhibits. It’s a real reflection of the diversity in this area. And then this event is just great because it’s so family-friendly and still fun for adults who don’t want to give up their whole lives,” she said.
Throughout the evening on Friday, thousands of people celebrated the anniversary with food, drinks, and hours of entertainment. The program included a live set from the Warriors’ resident DJ, a dance performance from a youth hip hop group, and portrait photography offered by a professional photographer. The museum’s three tiers of art, history, and natural science exhibits were free on Friday, and admission was discounted to $5 all weekend.
The museum’s founding mission is to be a “museum of the people,” which deputy director Kelly McKinley sees “as having people claim their power through remembering their individual stories and their shared stories,” she said. She describes the museum’s role as telling California stories with an Oakland beat, and being able to share stories that haven’t necessarily been heard widely. Over the last half-century, staff have worked to display exhibits that reflect landmark national events and showing them through an Oakland lens.
Fundamentally, McKinley sees the museum as a place where visitors can learn about identities and stories other than their own. “When someone encounters an object or story that is not necessarily their experience,” she said, the museum tries to “design it in a way that the person is supported in considering something they haven’t thought about before.” Then, she said, they hope visitors can go one step further and “have an opportunity to express their own point of view.”
This approach is part of the “DNA of the museum,” McKinley said. Kevin Roche, head architect of the 1969 building, championed the idea that the museum would be interactive and democratic. In an interview with The Oakland Tribune in 1961, Roche said he hoped to “develop a whole special atmosphere so that you would not have the feeling of just visiting a building.”
That special atmosphere has a lot to do with architecture. The squarely geometric shape of the concrete building was a radical contrast to the traditional European palaces that were the first showplaces of art and culture. In a 1962 interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, Allan McNab, director of administration for the Art Institute of Chicago who consulted on the project, said that the design would startle the museum world. It signaled that museums are not only meant for connoisseurs, but anyone with an interest in art and culture.
In the original plans, Roche intended to include a music pavilion that would seat 600 to 700 people, with a 500-seat theater beneath it, so that the entire museum grounds would be a cultural arts hub. The plan also included classrooms, a cafeteria, workshops and storage space.
Those spaces were never built, but the museum nevertheless became a space that invites community. The landscaping includes cascading tiers of balconies that open up to a big green patch, where people now lounge over meals from food trucks on every Friday.
That is the feeling McKinley wants to emulate—the idea that the museum is a gathering place that springs from grassroots involvement. When the curatorial team designs a new exhibit, they assess which community stories or topics might be underrepresented, and how the museum might best showcase those stories. “What are the ways that museums can use their unique assets, be it collections, be it the building, be it the expertise that they hold—how might they use that for community benefit?” McKinley asks.
When the curatorial team puts together a new exhibition, they often hand out surveys to visitors, sketching out potential exhibit topics in their “embryonic form,” as McKinley puts it, to see what reactions the ideas get. Visitors are asked to pick an exhibit they would be most likely to see, and answer follow-up questions about what they found interesting.
As the topics develop, staff employ more intensive techniques, such as working with a community advisory board to understand how an exhibit might be emotionally or culturally received by an audience, and to sensitively display the exhibit based on that feedback. For example, when preparing for the “Black Panthers at 50” exhibit, the curatorial team was cautious about whether they should display a KKK robe that was in the museum’s collection, and enlisted members of the black community to provide their input. The advisors said it was absolutely necessary for the robe to be included to accurately portray history. These techniques are especially necessary “to help us navigate stories that are more difficult, more contentious, and are more harmful or traumatic,” McKinley said.
McKinley emphasized that visitors should feel welcome, especially for those who feel museums are typically elite places. In the 6 years she has worked at the museum, McKinley said she has witnessed the demographic profile of the museum’s visitors shift from around 25 percent people of color to over 50 percent, which she notes is uncommon for museums in the United States.
She believes the museum has attracted more diverse audiences in part due to a grant from the New California Arts Fund (NCAF), which supports programmatic and exhibition content. The fund has supported exhibits including RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style and Wisdom, an exhibit that showed the unrecognized history of how Hip-Hop changed the world in style, culture, and music; Question Bridge: Black Males, a video-heavy exhibit showing black men answering questions posed to other black men; and Queer California: Untold Stories, an exhibit that focused on people who have been left out of mainstream portrayals of LGBTQ history.
“This museum, it’s not just about what’s inside the building. It’s actually cultivating a space for the community to come together,” said April Yee as she enjoyed the anniversary celebration. “It’s more than just the exhibits, which I feel like is unusual for a cultural institution.”
For her brother, Ben, he said he thinks OMCA Fridays Nights are one of Oakland’s best-kept secrets. “I feel like there’s a lot of people in the Bay Area who’ve never heard of this,” he said. “Or they live in Oakland and they’re like, ‘What’s the Oakland Museum. What are you talking about?’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’”
Elliot Aldrich, who was at the event with his parents and son, said he stumbled upon the museum almost 20 years ago when he came in for a cup of coffee on a break from class at Laney College. He became a member shortly after, and is a veteran of Friday Nights. “Whoever thought of this event was brilliant, because it’s so fun to see a museum space so active,” he said.
The event, with its outdoor festivities and indoor galleries, he said, was a good example of the “three different aspects of the museum: the history, the nature, the art. I can’t think of another museum that has the same theme.”
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