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Oakland Museum of California Reinventing Visitor Experience with Reinstallation of Collections
OMCA is redefining conventional exhibition strategies and setting a new paradigm for the way a museum can engage the public. Photo: Terrance McCarthy.

OAKLAND, CA.- Created in 1969 as a “museum for the people,” the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) is reviving its foundational premise with a major renovation and expansion of its landmark Kevin Roche building and a groundbreaking reinstallation of its collections.

OMCA is redefining conventional exhibition strategies and setting a new paradigm for the way a museum can engage the public. With the $58 million transformation, the Museum will create a more inclusive and interactive exhibition environment, achieve greater integration of its collections, and present the multilayered story of California and its people from a variety of perspectives—reflecting the diversity of California’s population and audiences served by the museum. Visitors will find multiple entry points into the state’s past, learn about the natural, artistic, and social forces that continue to shape it, and investigate their own role in the making of history.

“As the ‘museum of California,’ we have to reflect the state’s ever-changing demographic, become more nimble in our approach to its history, and embrace the varied cultures, natural environments, and experiences that give California its complex identity,” said Lori Fogarty, OMCA’s executive director.

“We are rethinking the traditional museum experience—in a sense demystifying it—by inviting visitors to participate in an ongoing dialogue about the art, history, and natural sciences of California, and to contribute to the development of multiple, perhaps even competing story lines that will be explored through our exhibitions and public programs,” Ms. Fogarty continued. “Adopting a de-centered narrative, we hope to advance a more integrated, multifaceted understanding of this dynamic state and its impact on the nation and the world.”

The New Galleries: Telling the Many Stories of California
When OMCA first opened its doors forty years ago, it brought together three historically independent disciplines—art, history, and natural sciences—under one roof. This progressive approach was to celebrate the many facets of California.

OMCA was founded through a broad civic initiative and designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kevin Roche of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates. Recognized as one of the most significant examples of post-World War II modernism in America, the Museum integrates architecture and landscape architecture and indoor and outdoor spaces into one building program. The Museum’s terraced roof gardens and central courtyard, designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley, continue to serve as a village green for Oakland residents and visitors from the Bay Area and beyond.

The transformation touches almost every aspect of the 300,000 square-foot Museum. It builds on the founders’ original multi-disciplinary and civic-minded intent by improving integration of the Museum’s collections and programs, strengthening its role as a public forum, and creating new opportunities for visitor participation. The new galleries will weave together chronological and theme-based installations to explore different notions of California identity and reality. The collections will be animated by innovative interpretive tools and interactive features, and new gathering spaces and program areas will engage visitors and encourage them to share their own perspectives, questions, and stories.

“California’s geography has been a major source of the state’s cultural dynamism. The state is practically all coastline and borders that open to the world. The immediate cities around the Museum—Oakland and San Francisco—are port cities—active, porous, and poised to receive and circulate the great mix of global populations, goods, ideas, and cultural influences,” said René de Guzman, a senior curator of art at OMCA.

“By transforming our collections galleries into spaces filled with ongoing activity and change, the Museum can better reflect the range of ideas that give California its vitality. We are marrying new forms of art and cultural expression with engaging interpretation to match the energy of our forward-looking, visionary state. Our goal is to strengthen our public’s connection to California’s cultural and environmental significance.”

The Gallery of California Art will be installed along three main themes: Land (Exploring California), People (Defining Identity), and Ideas (Creative California). Special sections will explore how California’s natural and manmade landscapes have inspired artists for centuries; how the work of California artists mirrors the diversity of the state’s peoples and cultures; and how California can be experienced as a center of creative innovation and dynamic change—through art and artistic movements ranging from Bay Area Figurative, to f.64 photography, to Self-Taught and Counterculture art, among many others.

The overarching theme of the Gallery of California History will be Coming to California. It will showcase more than 2,200 historical artifacts, works of art, ethnographic materials, and original photographs to illuminate the influence of successive waves of migration—from the earliest Natives, to settlers during the Spanish and Mexican periods, to more recent immigrants and their interactions with people who arrived before them.

Four sub-themes will further guide the History Gallery’s presentation: the diverse identities of the state’s people (The Diverse Peoples of California), the relationship of people to the environment (People and the Environment), the contrast between the myth of innovation, freedom, and self-fulfillment and often conflicting realities (The “California Dream”), and California’s relationship with the rest of the world (Global Connections). Oral histories and storytelling will play a prominent role throughout the gallery. The Museum is experimenting with a range of technologies, such as digital interactive exhibits and audio stations, to encourage visitors to contribute their own storylines.

“How do you tell a single story of California, or for that matter, the history of any place inhabited by such a wide variety of people of various cultures and perspectives?” said Louise Pubols, OMCA’s chief curator of history.

“There are many ways to approach a historic event or an artifact, informed by our personal range of cultural perspectives and lived experiences. The Museum is reinterpreting its collections by telling not just one, but many stories—embracing peoples and cultures that have traditionally been excluded from historical narrative.”

The Gallery of California Natural Sciences will explore California as a ‘hotspot,’ a place that ranks among the greatest in the world in biological and geological diversity but whose ecosystems also suffer from enormous pressures—urbanization, pollution, large-scale agriculture, and invasive species, among others. The Gallery will focus initially on five major, representative examples of California habitats: Oakland (coastal mountains), Sutter Buttes (central valley), Yosemite (Sierra Nevada range), Joshua Tree (southern deserts), and Cordell Bank/Pt. Reyes (nearshore). Exhibits, interactive displays, learning stations, and testimony from scientists and local residents will inspire visitors to learn more about California environments, visit them, and get involved in protecting them.

All galleries throughout the Museum will be designed to be more welcoming and inclusive, encouraging visitors to see themselves as active contributors to California’s social, artistic, environmental, and cultural heritage. Interactive components and interpretive tools will include “transparent” wall text that sheds light on behind-the-scenes curatorial challenges; interactive journals that invite visitors to engage in dialogue with curators, and each other, about specific and perhaps controversial works on display; movable furniture that allows visitors to chose which art they want to view with greater attention; first-person voice and multilingual labels; “loaded” lounges with objects to provoke conversation among visitors about art, history, and the environment; and the new Art Discovery Center and Chevron History Hang-Out, in-gallery experimental exhibition spaces that will provide a range of immersive experiences.

The Museum will test these and other exhibition strategies on an ongoing basis through extensive prototyping with members of its longstanding community advisory councils, families, and everyday museum visitors, constantly refining new ideas in response to visitor feedback.

“We are challenging conventional ways of interpretation and placing more emphasis on flexibility, transparency, and community dialogue,” adds Ms. Fogarty, OMCA’s executive director. “Just as California is not a ‘fixed’ place but constantly evolving, this museum is embracing change and openness to new ideas. It’s in our DNA!”

OMCA’s renovation and expansion is overseen by the San Francisco architectural firm of Mark Cavagnero Associates, honoring the original architecture and landscape vision of Kevin Roche and Dan Kiley while upgrading visitor amenities and integrating the museum experience. Modifications will encompass new exhibition and programming space, seating, and modernized lighting for better viewing of the collections. A new 90-foot canopy over the Oak Street entrance will enhance the Museum’s street presence.

Construction on the Art and History Galleries is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2010, adding 4,800 square feet of new gallery space to showcase what is known as the most comprehensive collection of California art and material culture in the world. Work on the Natural Sciences Gallery, which will gain 7,200 square feet, and enhancement to classroom and education facilities will be completed by early 2012. Many new exhibition elements throughout the museum, however, will be presented in prototype form and continue to evolve, contrary to a fixed “re-opening.”

The first phase of construction started in 2007 with the creation of a state-of-the-art storage facility, the California Collections and Research Center, for OMCA’s collection of nearly two million objects. The project also includes improvements to the 270-seat James Moore Theatre, restaurant, and the museum store.

OMCA has surpassed 85% of its $58 million campaign goal for the renovation and expansion. Core support from Measure G, passed by Oakland voters in 2002, provided $23.6 million for capital improvements and gave the campaign a strong early launch. Additional support has been provided by Wayne and Gladys Valley Foundation, Chevron, The Bernard Osher Foundation, Koret Foundation, Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Oakland Museum’s Women’s Board, California Cultural and Historical Endowment, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“We’ve had an incredible response to date, which is a reflection of the Museum’s standing as an important cultural, educational, and community resource,” said Sheryl Wong, chair of the Oakland Museum of California Campaign. “We’re grateful for the support throughout the Bay Area and beyond.”

While the Art and History Galleries are closed for renovation, OMCA continues to present a series of special exhibitions and public programs; the Natural Sciences Gallery will remain open through August 23, 2009 before closing for renovation. Between the closing and re-opening of the Art and History Galleries in spring 2010, the Museum will engage the community through various off-site public programming currently under development.

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