'Gold Rush!' just one reason to visit Oakland Museum

By Reed Parsell
Bee Staff Writer
Published April 5, 1998

All that glitters in Oakland is not just the Gold Rush exhibit. Countless other cultural nuggets can be mined from the Oakland Museum of California, which concentrates almost exclusively on the Golden State's art, history and environment.

Until summer, however, the museum has the spotlight trained on its sesquicentennial showpiece about the original 49ers, their contemporaries and their legacy.

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The life-size characters in "California Dreamers" are on exhibit in the museum's California History section.

If plans pan out, the exhibit will be displayed in Sacramento in three stages over two years, with the first installation going on view June 20. But if you have gold fever now and want to see "Gold Rush! California's Untold Stories" in one day and under one roof, visit the Oakland Museum -- and set aside an extra hour or two to enjoy the permanent collection.

For visitors who have forgotten what they learned in elementary school, the museum answers a rather basic question that neatly ties in with the whole Gold Rush phenomenon: Why do we call our state California?

The inspiration occurred back in 1510, more than two and a half centuries before the Spanish began settling here in earnest. Writer Garci-Ordonez de Montalvo's"Las Sergas de Espladian"was published in Seville. He set his romantic story in "an island called California." The "griffins" in the following passage are a type of Spanish vulture, which the museum says suggests the California condor:

"(California) was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. In their land there are many griffins. Their urns are of gold, and so is the harness of the wild beasts they tamed to ride, for in the whole island there is no metal but gold." There's that heavy metal again. The "Gold Rush" extravaganza's star attraction, a high-tech audio presentation guiding visitors past more than 1,500 artifacts, photographs and paintings, will be in Sacramento's Memorial Auditorium in 1999, from July 7 to Oct. 31. (The exhibit will be at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles from Sept. 19 of this year to Jan. 24, 1999). Included are the quarter-ounce nugget discovered by James Marshall on Jan. 24, 1848, and a miner's hand-hewn log cabin from the mid-1850s.

The Crocker Art Museum will display the other two exhibits, which also will go to the Smithsonian. "Art of the Gold Rush," which brings together 72 paintings and drawings of the era, will be at the Crocker from June 20 to Sept. 13 of this year. "Silver &Gold," presenting 150 daguerreotypes and ambrotypes made between 1848 and 1860, will be installed from Aug. 13 to Oct. 10, 1999.

Back in Oakland, the museum's permanent collection is arranged in three levels, one devoted to California artwork, one to the state's human history and one to geography and natural history.

Among the paintings on Level 3 are two by regional celebrity Wayne Thiebaud, "Delicatessen Counter" (1961) and "Urban Square" (1980). There are several striking works by Maynard Dixon (1875-1946). I also enjoyed "View of Stockton" by Alburtus Del Orient Browere(1814-1887), which depicts an 1854 downtown that sharply contrasts with what drivers today see off the freeway.

A large work by Joan Brown, "Model With Manuel's Sculpture" (1961), provides a taste of a major exhibit of Brown's work opening in Oakland Sept. 26. The artist, who died in 1990, gained fame during the Beat era.

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Joan Brown's "Model With Manuel's Sculpture," pictured, is part of the museum's permanent collection.

Photographs include the familiar "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). The black-and-white shot of a weathered, anxious woman and her three young children, taken in Nipomo in 1936, perhaps sums up the Great Depression as well as anyone image can.

Also on Level 3 is a photographic montage by David Hockney, "Telephone Pole," in which the well-known artist used dozens of small prints from a camera to piece together a Los Angeles scene in 1982. Look closely, and you can spot what appear to be tips of Hockney's moccasins.

Level 2 uses hundreds of photographs to help tell the state's history. Full-size wagons and a classic '50s automobile, along with smaller souvenirs, period displays and an elaborate sculpture, "California Dreamers," are complemented by the museum's breezy but detailed signs. In the automobile display, for example, you learn:

  • The nation's first gas station was established in Los Angeles in 1909 at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.

  • The nation's first stoplight was erected in the mid-1920s, also in Los Angeles.

  • More than 17.5 million California-registered vehicles are driven 95 billion miles each year on the state's 179,000 miles of roads.

As at almost any museum, a few of the pieces are a bit dated -- unintentionally, that is. One of the period rooms, depicting a modern California home's interior, contains an archaic VCR and a yellowing game of Trivial Pursuit laid out over a black-leather footstool. And the "Pictorial History of California People, Progress and Politics" ends with a photograph of George Deukmejian, "Governor (1982-)." He left office more than seven years ago.

Throughout Levels 1 and 2 of the museum, placards hung from the ceiling feature California-related quotes. Included is this comment, made in 1864 by a visitor from Vermont: "All the Sacramento Valley is good for, in my opinion, is to raise mosquitoes and fever ague."

Fever ague? That was a new one to me, but the long-dead New Englander's nasty criticism riled my Sacramento Valley feathers. To quote Jack Kerouac in the nearby Beat era display, "I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't make much difference."

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Travel Wise: Oakland Museum of California

Getting there: Take Interstate 80 west to Interstate 580 east to Interstate 980 west to Interstate 880 south. Exit at Jackson Street and follow signs to the museum. The address is 1000 Oak St.

The Lake Merritt BART station is one block south of the museum. The Amtrak station, served four times a day by Capitol trains from Sacramento, is in Jack London Square, about 10 blocks away.

Museum hours: Through July 26, special hours to accommodate the Gold Rush exhibit are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with the museum staying open until 9 p.m. on Fridays. After July 26, hours are expected to return to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and noon to 7 p.m. Sundays.

Admission: Through July 26, general admission is $8; seniors and students pay $6; and children under 5 are free. Tickets are $3 less for everyone after 3 p.m. Fridays; the first Sunday of each month has a $3 flat fee for everyone age 5 and above. After July 26, expect prices to go down $3 from levels imposed during the run of the Gold Rush exhibit.

Lunch time: The museum's cafeteria offers four or five entree selections. Among other lunch options are the restaurants at Jack London Square; re-admission to the museum is free, same day.

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