I love the city of Oakland. Certainly not its leadership and definitely not the corporate entities and banks squatting on vacancies and keeping property value low to ease the growing pains of gentrification, and the violence that comes with poverty and oppression can certainly be scary. What I love are the people, the revolutionary spirit, the diversity, and the sheer amount of culture exuded on any given day or block in town regardless of the grit that surrounds it.
The Oakland Museum Of California has impressed me very much with its sleek and social justice oriented curation in all its exhibits from natural history to its rotating galleries. Although it is a small museum in comparison to San Francisco’s incredible offerings, the Oakland Museum has an edgy heart and one hell of an eye for design. In many ways, it’s the same reason why I’m a huge devotee of the Oakland Airport over the horror show of SFO. I go for small but packed full of a proper punch.
Often times the history section of a museum is the domain of school fields trips and dusty taxidermy and tired docents more interested in keeping grubby little fingers of the exhibits as the former glow for knowledge and learning has faded in the dreariness of museum policy and abandoned enthusiasm for the lives described in showboxes. Not so at the Oakland Museum! This museum has done a lot to counter the Eurocentric paradigm of the past and each exhibit is designed to be as interactive as it possibly can. There are opportunities to touch, move, and learn. The story of genocide against indigenous people, the exploitation of immigrants for labor, and mass incarceration of people of color throughout the development of California and the social movements that grew to respond to these acts of violence are brought to the forefront in ways that children without shying away from reproductive rights, women’s liberation, queer liberation, and beatniks.
The Oakland Museum represents some of the most fun you can have on a rainy day at the museum in the bay area and I think it stands as a model to other museums in how they craft their showings. Social justice IS the story of art, history, and culture and I’m proud of what the Oakland Museum has done with limited space and resources. It’s a downright classy place to question class and it’s easy for me to get lost there for hours. Rather than letting anything stagnate, pieces in the permanent collection are often moved around and re-contextualized keeping the gallery fresh for repeat visitors.
One of my favorite exhibits that ever came through was the “Birth Of The Cool” which was an analysis on mid-century design but was in practice an exhibit on the aesthetic of Jazz. The exhibit took its name from Miles Davis and 150 interdisciplinary types of art from film, television, architecture, fashion, music, cartoons, cars, cutlery, painting, landscape, photography, and more. The exhibit had a keen eye on the way that Jazz is bigger than a genre of music and how its magic swept media and literally became part of the fabric of a modern American home. Immediately adjacent to this exhibit was another hall that was opened up to Oakland youth who depicted the birth of their own form of ‘The Cool’ with Hip Hop, skate decks, graffiti art, vinyl record art, bikes, video, and more. As another counter-stagnation tactic, the museum maintains a living bridge between what happened and what’s happening now.
What I enjoyed about the design of the 1968 exhibition was the clear influence that “Birth Of The Cool” had on its layout. Rather than isolating individual pieces, “rooms” were constructed throughout the gallery to depict what living rooms and dorms rooms were like and the way they reacted to the happenings of the time. The moonlanding was framed as something that happened in space but also happened in living rooms. Loops of the news of the landing played on the television as guests instinctively curled up around it. At another corner of the room, a complimentary living room was set up to display the aesthetic and media of another “average” family but this setup was centered around the Vietnam War and a full sized helicopter was part of the view as another television played the news. Inside of the helicopter were interviews from people involved with the war in shocking and depressing detail. There were coffins shrouded in flags and dispatches from nurses working on the war fields and soldiers talking about losing friends.
The layout was also playful and colorful. Nothing was displayed in a vacuum and there was an artful touch to every element of the gallery. A lot of time and thought went into the experience of the exhibition. I think it accomplished its goals in many progressive and illuminating ways. There was also individual focus on the Black Panthers, La Raza, Indigenous Civil Rights, student protests, the democratic national convention in Chicago, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, women’s’ liberation, the 1968 Olympics, and popular media/design/fashion.
Nothing occurs in isolation. I really enjoy interdisciplinary exhibitions that highlight how culture is an ecosystem of actions and reactions and influence. I always enjoy a visit to the Oakland Museum and recommend that you check it out sometime. I will say that someone at the museum needs to support the museum guards so they don’t look like they’re on the verge of an anxiety attack even on really slow days. It’s OK if kids are a little boisterous and loud in a room with psychedelic changing lights and rock music playing. Sometimes the guards are a little over zealous to everyone in the room and even outside on the grass. This strikes me as a sign that they’re bored to tears and may be treated differently for their role in making the art happens by the museum administration.
I hope you’ll enjoy my phone pictures and get an idea of how things were displayed. Flash wasn’t allowed and the lights were designed to be colorful so the quality is low. I also wanted to find moments when I wasn’t bothering people.