Northern California’s Top Museums
by Lee Foster
San Francisco’s de Young Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, in their very different ways, draw attention to the strength of the museum experience in Northern California travel. The de Young displays room after room of stately, historic European art, among other holdings. By contrast, SFMOMA has recently acquired the Fisher Collection, an ultra-modern group of works, and will build a new tower just to house it.
Overall, Northern California enlarges the notion of “museum,” especially if you focus on the top museums to consider.
Where but in California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, could one expect to find a museum devoted to up-to-the-minute technical advances? That’s the Tech Museum of Innovation. And where else, if one seeks out historic authenticity, would one find the premier museum to the railroad in the development of the American West than in Old Sacramento? From Sacramento the actual railroad first snaked its way east, across the Sierra.
Northern California’s great museums offer outstanding experiences of many kinds–art, history, technology.
Here are my nominees for the top museums to consider:
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco consist of both the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.
The strikingly modern, copper-skinned de Young Museum, which replaced an earthquake-damaged earlier structure, is a major amenity in Golden Gate Park. The building, designed by Swiss architects Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, features a cantilevered roof and a 144-foot-tall tower that offers sweeping views of the park out to the Pacific Ocean. Its Rockefeller Collection of American Art, with 100 of the finest pieces of American creativity, suggests the strength of the museum in American as well as European art. Classic paintings of George Caleb Bingham, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins are on display. The basement gallery shows special exhibitions. Contact: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco, CA 94118; 415/863-3330; www.deyoung.famsa,org.
The Asian Art Museum, housed in the city’s former public library, is an intriguing repository. The architects retained the facade, grand staircase, and ornate card-catalog room, but the rest of the building is strictly modern. The Avery Brundage Collection assembles some 10,000 items, one of the world’s major accumulations of Far East and Near East art. Contact: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; 200 Larkin St., San Francisco, CA 94102; 415/581-3500; www.asianart.org.
Designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, the building for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, at Yerba Buena Gardens, might be seen as the largest art object in its collection. The clean, boxy, geometric structure, with its skylight and elevated walkway, provides a fitting home for the strong collection and for traveling shows. Every explorer coming to San Francisco should put the museum on his or her must-see list. Two paintings not to miss, for example, are Henri Matisse’s Femme au chapeau, (Woman with the Hat, 1905), which started the Fauvism movement, and contemporary German Anselm Kiefer’s Osiris and Isis, 1987, which transforms the ancient myth into a metaphor for modern power. Contact: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 3rd St.; San Francisco, CA 94103; 415/357-4000; www.sfmoma.org.
Monterey’s State Historic Park. The Custom House and Pacific House at this first capital of California show fascinating trade objects that a young Richard Henry Dana saw when he wrote his classic work, Two Years Before the Mast. In that pre-Gold Rush California, cattle hides were known as “California banknotes” and were in demand by New England shoe manufacturers. A Path of History walk amidst the early adobes of Monterey and a Maritime Museum on the plaza heighten the museum interest in this seaside city. Contact: Monterey State Historic Park, 20 Custom House Plaza, Monterey, CA 93940; 831/649-7118; www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=575.
San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation. The technology magic of the Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, comes alive in this museum, which celebrates scientific curiosity. This showcase of technological breakthroughs is largely a hands-on affair, where you can watch a robot perform household tasks, such as cooking food. Guided by volunteer interpreters, you learn about modern developments transforming our lives in robotics, microelectronics, biotechnology, materials science, and space exploration. For example, the difficult ethical decisions in biotechnology are presented as a viewer becomes aware of how gene modification can create new plants and animals. Contact: The Tech Museum of Innovation, 201 S. Market St., San Jose, CA 95113; 408/279-8324; www.thetech.org.
Oakland Museum of California. The genius of the Oakland Museum is that it separates, on individual floors, the worlds of nature, art, and history in California. The Oakland Museum has been a leader in museum presentation, creating “environments” rather than static exhibits. Typically, you might find here a display of “tidepool life,” about the complex web of life in the ocean-shore environment, rather than a static “seashells of the world” exhibit. Innovators such as the Oakland Museum have changed the concept of what a museum can be. Contact: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, CA 94607; 510/238-2200; www.museumca.org.
Sacramento’s Old Sacramento. The cluster of historic buildings in Old Sacramento represents an alternative strategy for historic preservation. “Preservation for use” was the motto, re-creating the hustle and bustle of the post-Gold Rush scene along the Sacramento waterfront. One special museum here is the California State Railroad Museum, which rises far beyond a mere fascination with rolling stock, even though they have 21 restored locomotives. The Railroad Museum tells the sociological story of the effect of the railroad on the development of California and the country. The museum will excite anyone who feels a slight tug at the heart when the whistle of a railroad penetrates the stillness of night. A visitor can lodge on an authentic riverboat, the Delta King, a museum in itself. Contact: California State Railroad Museum, 111 I St., Sacramento, CA 95814; 916/445-6645; www.csrmf.org.
If your travels take you to Southern California, consider these museum stops:
Getty Center in Los Angeles. This permanent collection of choice works of art, from all ages, treats a visitor to room after room of priceless treasures. You leave the 11th-century illuminated manuscripts and pass into a collection of Ruisdael landscapes from the Dutch 17th century. The Getty is, simply put, world class, a statement of good taste superbly funded. Contact: The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Los Angeles, CA, 90049; 310/440-7300; www.getty.edu.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For the depth and range of its collections, the County Museum of Art is one of the country’s major art repositories. Whether the subject is American Art or Costume and Textiles, the museum has strong collections. The five-building complex also features a changing show or two, often of contemporary art. Contact: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; 213/857-6000; www.lacma.org.
Los Angeles’s Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. It’s amazing to think that, in the heart of Los Angeles, a tar pit, the La Brea Tar Pit, would yield some of the richest examples of ice-age fossils of mammals and birds. The huge reconstructed mammoths on display are the real thing, not just a movie fantasy. They died when they came to drink at the tar pit and became trapped in the goo. Contact: Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, 5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; 323/934-7243; www.tarpits.org.
San Marino’s Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. If you’ve longed to get close to an original work of literature, such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, in his own handwriting, or one of the first folios of Shakespeare’s plays, the Huntington can satisfy your desire. Their outstanding collection of rare books includes a Gutenberg Bible and the Ellesmere Chaucer. That’s only the beginning of the Huntington experience, which includes elaborate gardens and strong collections of paintings, especially 18th-century British. Contact: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA 91108; 626/405-2100; www.huntington.org.
San Diego Museum of Art, in Balboa Park. Both the permanent collection of Italian Renaissance and Spanish Baroque masters, plus the changing contemporary shows, attract visitors to this art museum. Of special interest is the unusual situation that there are another dozen fine museums nearby, such as the Museum of Photographic Arts, with its innovative shows, and the San Diego Aerospace Museum, which salutes the aviation and space accomplishments to which Southern California has contributed. Contact: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101; 619/232-7931; www.sdmart.org.
California’s great museums nurture the developing California temperament, always a restless sensibility. In their great museums Californians keep pondering: What can we learn from the cultural legacies of the past, who are we as Californians today, and what is notable about our current achievements? These great museums constantly renew themselves, challenge the citizens of the state, and delight guests who come to visit.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal.
The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page
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