.Find Your Muse

East Bay museums are for everyone

Think museums are dusty old collections of boring stuff? That would be…completely wrong. The East Bay brims with lovingly curated places, celebrating everything from bugs to video games to vintage planes, and, naturally, art. The suggestions below are by no means comprehensive, but offer peeks at some of the many options, including what’s up at major institutions, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and the Oakland Museum of California.

Note that some museums included are open only on certain days, or for public events. Check websites for days, hours and special programs.

African American Museum and Library at Oakland

According to AAMLO lore, in 1946, Eugene and Ruth Lasartemay and Jesse and Dr. Marcella Ford began collecting oral histories and artifacts documenting activities of African Americans in and around Oakland, the Bay Area and California. On July 2, 1965, the organization became the East Bay Negro Historical Society (EBNHS). After several moves, and developing a library, in 1994, the organization merged with the City of Oakland to create the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO). In February 2002, AAMLO relocated to its current home at 659 14th St.

AAMLO’s reference library is non-circulating, but is a “unique jewel” for researchers, students and anyone interested in African American history. The collection consists of approximately 12,000 volumes by or about African Americans, including books on religion, the military, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. 

On April 8, there will be a tour of the AAMLO from noon-1pm, including “Explore Visions Toward Tomorrow: The African American Community in Oakland, 1890-1990,” a long-term exhibition examining a century of African Americans building families, neighborhoods and businesses as they fought for social justice.


Chabot Space & Science Center

While technically not a museum, the Chabot had to be included because it is so rockin’. (Make that “rocket.”)

This Earth Day, April 22, visitors can be wowed by a special “showcase of science on Earth and from space.” The whole fam will “learn about how NASA uses its global satellite resources to help better understand our air, land and seas.” There will also be a screening of the Habit Earth planetarium film. A live science presentation on the evolution of Earth will be followed by a naturalist-led hike in the surrounding redwood forest to reveal how climate change is affecting local plant species. “Interact and engage with hands-on activities that teach us that everyone can play a part in saving our planet,” say Chabot materials. 


Essig Museum of Entomology

Bugs have it at the Essig.

Collections of insects “and other terrestrial arthropods” have been housed on the UC Berkeley campus since the 1880s. Museum materials state: “[When] Edward O. Essig joined the faculty in 1914, the growth and uses of the collection were expanded…The research collection, starting with 10,000-15,000 specimens (less than 1% of the present holdings), was formalized in 1939.” In other words, it’s a bug-lover’s paradise.

Usually not open to the public, an exception is the Essig Brunch, held Fridays from 10-11am, both in-person and on Zoom. The weekly seminar series, run by graduate students in arthropod science, features local and visiting researchers presenting a wide range of entomology topics. On April 7, Dr. Phil Ward, professor of entomology at UC Davis, will present “Camponotine ants and their little helpers: evolutionary history of carpenter ants and their endosymbionts.” As Frank Sinatra sang in “High Hopes”: “Everyone knows an ant can’t/Move a rubber tree plant.” Except—they kinda can.


Golden State Model Railroad Museum

Way back In 1930, there was a group of model train enthusiasts who loved electric trains, steam-powered trains, boats, race cars and model airplanes, known as the “Golden Gate Model Engineers Guild.” Besides having their own private meetings, the GGMEG would also put on public displays of their models. Many transitions ensued during the following decades.

In 1985, the Golden State Model Railroad Museum was incorporated and eventually moved to its home in Point Richmond, next to Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline park. “Our goals…continue to be to provide education to adults and children interested in model railroading, prototype railroad history and operations,” say museum materials. But really, they just like to play with trains. Everyone else gets to play, too. The museum reopened after winter break on April 2.


Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment

This would be the place for non-typical-museum-goers. For more than a decade, “the MADE has sought to legitimize the preservation of video games as an historic, cultural and artistic medium within the context of our time,” according to its materials. “Visitors to the MADE have access to play any of our collection of over 14,000 games across 40-plus systems, on-demand. Through exhibitions, events and exposition, these games are exposed as works of art, with the processes behind their creation brought to light for the first time in a true, interactive, museum setting.” 

Gamers, heads up.


Oakland Aviation Museum

Established by Boeing in 1929, the Oakland Aviation Museum is housed in the original Boeing School of Aeronautics. The school was dedicated to training pilots, mechanics and other personnel for Boeing Air Transport. “The company chose a site at the Oakland Municipal Airport, the largest municipal airport in the United States at that time,” state museum materials.

The OAM’s mission is to “educate about the role of historic North Field at Oakland International Airport, Oakland and the Bay Area in the development of aviation on the West Coast and in the U.S. by collecting, preserving and interpreting aircraft and aviation artifacts.” And it’s also a heckuva destination for vintage plane buffs, especially on Cockpit Days, three days a year. That’s when visitors are invited to view aircraft from the cockpits of planes like: A-3 Skywarrior, A-4 Skyhawk, A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair, Harrier Jump-Jet, T-39 Sabreliner, Mustang P-51 (¾ scale), Cessna 0-2 and MiG-15. 

The next Cockpit Day is Father’s Day, Sunday, June 18. Dad’s Day of Thunder?


Pacific Pinball Museum

What are “Pointy People?” Alameda’s Pacific Pinball Museum director Michael Schiess says they/it are a version of pinball machine game design, now called “Contemporary Style,” first created in 1965, lasting until 1975, “which forever changed the art of the games.” If that sounds a go-go, the PPM’s exhibit of these games is still running to “play, see and read about.”

PPA materials describe it as “an interactive museum, offering a chronological and historical display of rare bagatelles and early games, with over 100 pinball machines from the 1940s to present day available to play,” alongside hand-painted murals, vintage jukeboxes and rotating exhibits. 


Richmond Museum of History and Culture

Two sites are administered by the Richmond Museum Association: The collection of artifacts documenting Richmond’s unique past (Richmond Museum of History and Culture), and the last remaining “Victory Ship,” the SS Red Oak Victory. The RMA celebrated 60 years of preserving history in 2014.

One significant RMHC attraction was only discovered that same year. Richmond: Industrial City, a mural that had once decorated the downtown post office lobby, had been in storage for years. It was created by Victor Arnautoff, a protégé of Diego Rivera, and is now on view at the RMHC.

The Red Oak Victory resides at Richmond’s harbor and is maintained by a small navy of volunteers determined to make her seaworthy again. 


The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at Cal is one of the world’s preeminent Jewish collections. Its diverse archive, library and museum holdings include art, objects, texts, music and historical documents about Jews in the Global Diaspora, including the American West.

Founded in Berkeley in 1962, the former Judah L. Magnes Museum was one of the first Jewish museums in the United States. “Reflecting the guiding concerns of American Jewry after the Holocaust, the museum focused on preserving the legacy of vanishing communities around the world,” museum materials state.

On now in the Main Gallery until May 11 is “In Twilight: Ori Sherman’s Creation.”

The work of Ori Sherman (1934-1988), an artist and illustrator beloved in the San Francisco Bay Area, was often infused with Jewish themes. At the end of his life, after being diagnosed with AIDS, Sherman completed a cycle of 18 paintings depicting the seven days of the creation of the world as emerging directly from the Hebrew words in the Book of Genesis. The original pieces are displayed together in this exhibition.

The Magnes is open extended hours for spring; check website for details. 


BAMPFAs New Curators

In addition to its ongoing major show of a feminist Latina artist, called “Amalia Mesa-Bains: Archaeology of Memory,” BAMPFA has hired three new curators, Victoria Sung, Anthony Graham and Margot Norton. Sung and Graham answered three questions for the EBX:

EBX: What is your vision for BAMPFA exhibits going forward? Where do you see continuity with the past, and where do you see new directions?

Victoria Sung: I’m excited to work with the BAMPFA team to build upon the institution’s remarkable history of showing some of the most important and urgent art and artists of our time. At the same time, my colleagues and I are eager to learn about and bring into focus the many stories that haven’t been told in a museum context. I try to approach exhibition-making with a spirit of humility and open-ended inquiry and am looking forward to seeing where that leads me as I get to know the Bay Area. 

EBX: Are there particular artists or fields of art that you want to allow the public access to?

Anthony Graham: I hope that our collection can be a place for dynamic conversations around the ideas and issues of our moment, understood with an awareness of our past. The collections at BAMPFA reflect so many perspectives and histories, and by presenting long-term installations from the collection, my hope is that audiences have the opportunity to visit works over time. Not only does this build exciting connections between artworks, but it can also be a stage for dialogue between familiar pieces and for charting new directions for the museum’s holdings.

EBX: What do you see as the best ways to reach/include new audiences?

VS: I’m a big believer that the only way to reach new audiences is to get out into the community—in our case, that’s the UC Berkeley community, the Berkeley community, the East Bay community and the wider Bay Area community. If we want to create programs that resonate with our communities, we need to know what people are interested in or talking about. Please share your ideas and/or upcoming events with us! 


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