How the Oakland Museum of California Blew My Mind (and Captured My Heart)

Reflections on my experience visting a museum rooted in community, progressivism and radical empathy

I spent the better part of last week on a work-related research trip in California. The project team — consisting of two colleagues from Carnegie Museum of Natural History and myself — spent three days in Los Angeles and then flew up the coast to the Bay Area for another three days of site visits and meetings. Most of our appointments were focussed on researching emerging technologies, exploring media partnerships and museum benchmarking, but the most surprising experience for me was an unplanned visit to the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA).

It was a sunny Thursday morning and I had just finished up visiting the brilliant folks at CyArk who do very important work documenting cultural heritage sites in danger of erosion or distruction. With a few hours to kill before an afternoon meeting across the bay in San Francisco, I decided to split off from my group and make my way to OMCA, a museum I’ve heard a lot about over the years but never had a chance to visit. As I made my way to the museum, I took in my surroundings and noticed the dynamic nuances of the Oakland communities I passed through on foot.

As I entered the museum from the Oakland Street courtyard entrance, I was struck with the first thing I saw: a large outdoor community gathering place situated before you even reached the ticket counter where several dozen people were hanging out in the Northern California sun. There was a very large chalkboard on one of the exterior walls upon which visitors could leave their mark. This struck me as very different. I visit a lot of museums and can’t recall one inviting this kind of open engagement with visitors before they’ve even entered the building. This space instantly set the tone that the museum belonged to the community, and was there to serve the community.

At that moment I knew this would be a different museum experience.

The Abstraction gallery at Oakland Museum of California

I began with the art galleries. The collection is positioned well with a natural focus on California artists beginning in the 1800s and progressing through today. The physical space was not grandiose or extravagant, but almost cozy with carpeting and low ceilings.

Storytelling in the art galleries was tastefull, layered and accessible. I really enjoyed the museum’s willingness to highlight back-of-house roles that help make exhibitions happen. One great example of this was the presentation of a work by Yun Gee where the painting was mounted perpendicular to the gallery wall with it’s back exposed. This opened an opportunity to talk about art registration and infuse the gallery with the voice of a museum registrar.

Unique presentation of a work by Yun Gee.

Where technology was employed in the art galleries, it was subtle and appropriate. Most of the digital interactions were intended to activate visitors in a participatory way.

Digital portraits created by visitors hung alongside portraiture from the OMCA collection.

There was a listening station where you could eavesdrop on visitor conversations about the works on view and artistic practice in general. I found these conversations to be refreshing: real people in the process of making real sense of abstract ideas. Along the same lines, the museum harnessed technology to help tell the story of protraiture in a well done interactive installation. There’s no shortage of museums inviting visitors to create in their galleries, but often times the gallery wall is a sacred space reserved for “real artists.” OMCA takes the liberty to include visitor self-portraits on the same wall — and alongside — works of portraiture from the collection. This may seem like a small or insignificant gesture, but to me the semiotics are major. The museum is symbolically acknowledging their visitors as equals.

Once I finished up in the art galleries, I made my way into the history and science galleries. This is where shit got real for me. One of the first exhibits I entered dealt with the Japanese Internment that took place in California during World War II. Tough stuff. The exhibit was presented in a space resembling a typical cell in which Japanese Americans would have been confined. It was small. It was dark. Voices of people who experienced the Internment permeated the space. It was moving.

As I was leaving the exhibit, I turned the corner to exit and was confronted with a bulletin board asking the question, “What will YOU do when they round us up?” Next to that question hung news of recent events such as Trump’s travel ban. My jaw hit the floor in awe and admiration.

It’s rare and risky for museums to have opinions. It’s even rarer and riskier for museums to take political stands for fear of alienating visitors and funders. There are certainly museums reacting to the current political climate in the United States, but to me most of these initiatives feel rooted in protest or thinly veiled in metaphor. I commend OMCA for honoring their community by going out on a limb for it in this direct way.

There are likely some likeminded museopunks reading this right now and I wonder: Would your museum make a statement like this? Why or why not?

The progressivism didn’t end there. Everywhere I turned the museum’s community-based progressivism was on view. In an exhibit dealing with California’s Native American history, the museum asks how what happened at Standing Rock was different — or the same — as what happened to native Americans in the 1800s. OMCA takes on contemporary issues such as homelessness and political disenfranchisement head-on through historical lenses that put the visitor at the center of their experience. Whether it be through the act of placing a sticky note on a wall or climing into a drain pipe, it is clear the narratives on display are for, and in many cases by, museum visitors.

OMCA asks visitors “How do you fix a broken system?” and invites visitors to empathize with the homeless by crawling inside a drain pipe.
Co-creation in action: OMCA activated their community to help create an exhibition about the 1950s in California.

Threads of progressivism extend beyond the art and history galleries, into the natural science galleries. I found their presentation to be an unspoken embrace of anthropocenic thinking. The museum successfully juxtaposed the built environment and human action with the natural science collection.

Animal dioramas were displayed in close proximity to man-made items like road signs and chain-link fencing. In the context of a natural science gallery, this approach provokes the visitor to consider where nature begins, where it ends and the role humans play in its well-being. The concept of the anthropocene, or the thesis that we are living in a new epoch of human impact, is intriguing to me on many different levels. This is a great example of how a museum can begin to introduce and talk about some of these emerging concepts with their visitors.

I wish I had more time to spend at OMCA. I could have spent all day observing how visitors navigated, reacted and interacted with the galleries. In my mind — a mind of a professional mildly obsessed with museums and how they relate to the communities they serve — this is a museum that’s doing it right. They are doing it right curatorially. They are doing it right politically. They are doing right by their community by embracing it with open galleries that welcome, celebrate and protect that community as the valuable partner it is.