Author’s Note: This article “Northern California’s Top Museums” is also a chapter in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Parallel coverage on Northern California occurs in my latest travel guidebook/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
The great museums of Northern California present ongoing enticements to attract new audiences. For example, one 2019 innovation at SFMOMA was Andy Warhol’s “Silver Cloud” exhibit. Every child present wanted to run through it, sending the mylar silver balloons aloft in their light helium splendor.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco is a Wildcard
Because The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco focuses totally on temporary exhibits, it is a wildcard in my selections. However, an essential San Francisco heritage exhibit in 2020 (to August 9) raises its visibility.
The exhibit is a brilliant display of the Levi Strauss heritage in San Francisco, in California, and in the world. This entrepreneurial fellow won a patent for putting rivets in denim cloth in the 19th century to make hearty clothing even more durable. He took denim and made “jeans” a worldwide phenomenon in fashion, appealing from the eras of 19th century mechanics to 21st century rockers.
The formal name of the exhibit is “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style.” Exhibits range from the oldest jeans still existent, from 1890, to a cluster of “self-expression” jeans as modern works of art. Aspects of the exhibit move from the birth of blue jeans to their evolution beyond workwear to iconic high fashion. The city of San Francisco served as the center of this worldwide style revolution.
Contact: The Contemporary Jewish Museum; 736 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103; 415/655-7881; https://www.thecjm.org/.
SFMOMA and BAMPFA Are Local Favorites
All the great museums have their fans. Certainly, many followers enjoy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), especially since its 2013-2016 rebuild and re-opening. The new SFMOMA has the space to showcase its Fisher Collection, with many modern masterpieces.
Likewise, in my hometown, Berkeley, the most recent new major museum in our region draws numerous patrons. That is the BAMPFA–Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, sparkling with innovation.
SFMOMA closed for a few years for the multi-story rebuild to accommodate its donated Fisher Collection and other needs. The international architecture firm Snohetta won the design contract. Beyond housing the Fisher Collection, the museum directors also desired more space for several purposes. Above all, the stated needs for renovation included space for education, public programming, conservation, and interpretation.
Aside from temporary exhibits, such as the 2019 Andy Warhol show, SFMOMA presents its ongoing collection. Importantly, one highlight is the Alexander Calder mobiles. One is the Big Crinkly sculpture, next to the outdoor Living Wall art object. Calder’s many mobiles are beguiling.
Rotating content from the permanent collection and temporary presentations mix in and spark the collective memory of every museum goer. Repeat visits add to the mix. As an example, I remember Andreas Gursky’s photos showing “structures of our world.” One photo showed thousands of items for purchase in a modern supermarket. Above all, that image defined one special aspect of our time. As another instance, because I am a San Francisco nostalgia buff, I enjoyed a show of the graphic posters from Bill Graham concerts 1966-1970. Such are a repeat visitor’s memorable art recollections from earlier exhibits.
BAMPFA in Berkeley
At Berkeley Fine Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), expect to be surprised. For instance, can spiders create intricate three-dimensional webs that are themselves works of art? Certainly, that was the vision of artist Tomas Saraceno. His work appeared in an early show when BAMPFA opened in downtown Berkeley.
BAMPFA is a striking architectural statement and hosts a special collection of fine art and historic films. Innovation propels the museum into the stratosphere of the best museums to consider in California. For example, when you walk along the street to the back of the museum, you see a huge outdoor LCD screen. The screen shows a rotating display of clips from the historic film collection.
California is Museum-Rich
To sum up, 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? Certainly, that’s the essence of The Tech Interactive museum in San Jose. In the same vein, what if one seeks out historic authenticity? Where would one find the premier museum devoted to the railroad’s development of the American West? Of course, the logical choice would be the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. From Sacramento the actual transcontinental railroad first snaked its way east, across the Sierra.
In conclusion, Northern California’s great museums offer outstanding experiences of many kinds—art, history, technology.
In short, here are my nominees, in more detail, for the top museums to visit:
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
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.
A strikingly modern, copper-skinned edifice at the de Young Museum replaced an earthquake-damaged earlier structure. Consequently, the de Young became a major refurbished amenity in Golden Gate Park. The building was designed by Swiss architects Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog. The architects favored a cantilevered roof and a 144-foot-tall observation tower. Therefore, from the tower, you experience sweeping views of the park out to the Pacific Ocean.
The de Young’s Rockefeller Collection of American Art consists of 140 of the finest examples of American creativity. Above all, this holding suggests the strength of the museum, both in American and 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; 415/750-3600; www.deyoung.famsf.org.
The companion museum, Legion of Honor, is at 100 34th Ave., San Francisco, CA 94121. In short, that facility emphasizes Franco-American ties between San Francisco and Paris.
The Asian Art Museum
The Asian Art Museum, housed in the city’s former public library, is an intriguing repository. Architects retained the Beaux-Arts facade, grand staircase, and ornate card-catalog room. However, the rest of the building is strictly modern. Inside, the Avery Brundage Collection assembles some 10,000 items. Brundage amassed one of the world’s major accumulations of Far East and Near East art. In conclusion, the Asian Art Museum might be considered the most exotic and unexpected of Northern California’s museums.
Contact: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; 200 Larkin St., San Francisco, CA 94102; 415/581-3500; www.asianart.org.
Talented Swiss architect Mario Botta designed the original building for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, at Yerba Buena Gardens. Therefore, the building itself might be seen as the largest art object in its collection.
In addition, the new building annex, by the international architectural firm, Snohetta, adds to the design delight. The clean, boxy, geometric structure has skylights and an elevated walkway. Beyond that, new space allows SFMOMA to expand its services in multiple ways. Every art explorer coming to San Francisco should put this museum on his or her must-see list.
For example, one painting not to miss is Henri Matisse’s Femme au Chapeau (Woman with a Hat, 1905). Unexpectedly, the painting started the Fauvism movement. Beyond that, another amazing canvas is contemporary German Anselm Kiefer’s Osiris and Isis, 1987. In short, in the painting he 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 State Historic Park
Two hours south of San Francisco, the Custom House and Pacific House Museum in Old Monterey were part of the first capital of California. Originally, Monterey was the place to be when the Spanish and Mexicans were in control. Today they are part of Monterey State Historic Park.
The museum shows fascinating trade objects that the young author Richard Henry Dana saw when he visited. Subsequently, Dana wrote his classic work, Two Years Before the Mast. Above all, in that pre-Gold Rush California, cattle hides were known as “California banknotes.” Hides were in demand by New England shoe manufacturers.
A Path of History walk both along the waterfront and amidst the early adobes allures visitors to Monterey. Moreover, a Maritime Museum on the plaza heightens 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/?page_id=575.
The Tech Interactive
The technology magic of the Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, comes alive at The Tech Interactive museum in San Jose. Above all, The Tech celebrates scientific curiosity. Moreover, this showcase of technological breakthroughs is largely a hands-on affair. You can watch and direct a robot performing household tasks, such as cooking food.
Guided by volunteer interpreters, you learn about modern developments transforming our lives. Most importantly, the subjects covered include robotics, microelectronics, biotechnology, materials science, and space exploration. For example, the difficult ethical decisions in biotechnology come alive before a viewer. You become aware of how gene modification can create new plants and animals. Consequently, the question arises: What are the unexpected outcomes?
Contact: The Tech Interactive, 201 S. Market St., San Jose, CA 95113; 408/294-8324; www.thetech.org.
Oakland Museum of California
An element of genius in the Oakland Museum is that it separates, on individual floors, the worlds of nature, art, and history in California.
Similarly, the Oakland Museum has been a leader in museum presentation, creating “environments” rather than static exhibits. Typically, you might find here a display of tide-pool life, explaining the complex web of life in the ocean-shore environment. However, there is no static “seashells of the world” exhibit. As a result, innovators such as the Oakland Museum change the concept of what a museum can be.
One intriguing exhibit mounted in 2020 involves maps and all the ways that maps inform our lives and manage our perception of reality. The exhibit is “You Are Here: California Stories on the Map.” For example, there is a graphic of all the symbols used on National Park Service maps. The symbols amount to their own language, which we must learn to navigate the world.
Contact: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, CA 94607; 510/318-8400; www.museumca.org.
The Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive opened in January 2016. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the ingenious structure offers state-of-the-art theaters and galleries. Further, the theater presents some of the best contemporary and historical films from around the world. Lectures, workshops, performances, and readings for all ages are part of the mission. Beyond that, an Art Lab and Reading Room encourage engagement with visitors. Dining is available at the Babette Cafe.
Contact: BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, CA 94704; 510/642-0808; http://www.bampfa.org.
The cluster of historic buildings in Old Sacramento State Historic Park represent an alternative strategy for historic preservation. “Preservation for use” is the motto. Old Sacramento re-creates 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. For example, the museum does have 21 restored locomotives. Specifically, however, the Railroad Museum tells the sociological story of the effect of the railroad on the development of California and the country. In addition, the museum will excite anyone who feels a slight tug at the heart when the whistle of a train penetrates the stillness of night. Moreover, a visitor can lodge on an authentic historic riverboat, the Delta King, a museum in itself. No other Northern California museum venue matches the variety of historic elements found at Old Sacramento.
Contact: California State Railroad Museum, 111 I St., Sacramento, CA 95814; 916/445-6645; www.csrmf.org.
Southern California Museums
Beyond the great Northern California museums, what if you venture into Southern California? What would be some good museums to consider?
The 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 van Ruisdael landscapes from the Dutch 17th century. Simply put, the Getty is 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.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) boasts depth and range in its collections. It is one of the country’s major art repositories. Whether the subject is American Art or Fashion 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; 323/857-6000; www.lacma.org.
La Brea Tar Pits & Museum
It’s amazing to think that, in the heart of Los Angeles, a tar pit would yield some of the richest examples of ice-age fossils of mammals and birds. In the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, you see huge reconstructed mammoths on display. Above all, they are the real thing, not just a movie fantasy. They died when they came to drink at the tar pits and became trapped in the goo.
Contact: La Brea Tar Pits, 5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; 213/763-3499; www.tarpits.org.
The Huntington Library
At the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, in San Marino, you will find a major cultural treat. If you’ve longed to get close to an original work of great literature, such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, in his own handwriting, this is the place. Moreover, another treasure is one of the first folios of Shakespeare’s plays. The Huntington’s 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 Museum and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA 91108; 626/405-2100; www.huntington.org.
San Diego Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art resides in Balboa Park. Attractions include both the permanent collection, such as Italian Renaissance and Spanish Baroque masters, plus the changing contemporary shows. Moreover, of special interest is the unusual situation that there are several other fine museums nearby, such as the Museum of Photographic Arts, with its innovative shows, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum, which salutes the aviation and space accomplishments to which Southern California contributes.
Contact: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92102; 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 many things. 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.