The reinvention of two Bay Area museums

 In Arts and Culture, Community

For me an ideal museum experience is one that gives me the feeling that I am walking through history and gaining a better sense for the natural environment, art and culture of a particular place over time. This past month I had that experience in two distinctly different venues. Both are museums with bold plans to engage the public like never before.

The Oakland Museum of California
Underneath the terraced bunker-like appearance of the Oakland Museum lies three floors of exhibit space representing California art, history and the natural sciences. After two years of remodels to its history and art exhibits, the museum re-opened today with celebrations all weekend free to the public.

I recommend starting your journey in the Gallery of California History on Level 2. The heart of the exhibits here begins with a tule reed canoe, something commonly built by California’s first human inhabitants “before the other people came.” In this section devoted to Native American history, multimedia exhibits, including oral histories told by native Californians, give you a strong sense for the early way of life in California. From here you then walk through time witnessing and interacting with the transformation of California to the present day. The new design intentionally includes features to engage visitors and collect their personal experiences, potentially contributing to the future development of the exhibits.

Once you have strolled through California history, the Gallery of California Art on Level 3 will make much more sense. Here an oil painting tells the story of a time when grizzly bears were once abundant in California, until they were hunted to death. The last Bay Area grizzly bear was shot in Berkeley’s Strawberry Canyon in the 1870s. By 1922, California’s official state mammal was extinct in the state.

The natural sciences gallery on Level 1 remains closed. A giant-sized post card hanging outside a window on Level 2 writes, “Is paradise in trouble? Is Yosemite being loved to death? Find out when the Gallery re-opens in 2012.” This summer the gallery team will be looking for the public’s feedback on new exhibit ideas.

The Old Mint

While I had heard vague stories about San Francisco’s Old Mint, it wasn’t until I heard a KQED Quest story that I realized that the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society has big plans to revitalize the historic structure into the Bay Area’s first museum dedicated to San Francisco and Bay Area history.

This fabled structure located at 5th and Mission streets in downtown San Francisco was one of the few buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake and fires. You can find out why on a member tour. After the earthquake, the “Granite Lady” was also a rare place where city dwellers could find clean water. Springs that fed Mission Creek filled a cistern in the bedrock below the hulking building. Until city water mains could be repaired, the water collecting underneath the Mint was a precious commodity.

The Old Mint closed its doors in 1937 when the new Mint on Duboce and Market opened up in today’s Castro district. Until then, the Old Mint produced and stored coins. Today the City of San Francisco owns the building, which was sold as surplus by the United States government in 2003 for one dollar. The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society organizes museum events and is leading the Mint Project capital campaign.

The Historical Society has raised one-third of their $95 million goal to finance the renovation of the Old Mint into the first LEED certified National Historic Landmark in the City of San Francisco and California.

Since seismic retrofits have already been completed, the project’s mission is to transform the 19th century landmark into a 21st century, energy-efficient, mixed-use cultural center complete with a living roof, much like the one above the California Academy of Sciences. Two floors of the three-story building will have both permanent and changing exhibits with opportunities for the visitor to engage and interact with the region’s history over time, possibly similar to the Oakland Museum’s new layout. Of course, given its historical landmark status on the city, state and federal levels, they have a few hurdles to clear once the funds are raised.

For three weekends this month the Old U.S. Mint will open to the public. According to the museum’s website, “within the historic vaults of the Old Mint, we will explore the past, present and future of food and drink in the San Francisco Bay Area” in a special exhibit on the Bay Area’s Innovations in Farming and Food.

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