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OMCA at 50

The Oakland Museum of California celebrates a half century of bold and inclusive exhibitions.


When OMCA opened in 1969, it was billed as a "museum for the people."

Photo courtesy of Oakland Museum of California

This fall, the Oakland Museum of California turns 50, and it’s marking the milestone by doing what it does best: mounting a provocative new exhibition—and throwing a fabulous party.

On September 20, the museum will turn its weekly Friday Nights@OMCA event into a major birthday bash, so don’t miss the chance to toast the institution for all it has given us over the years. And, beginning next month, visitors will get a chance to see No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, a trippy exhibition exploring the annual mega-​gathering in the Nevada desert. For a museum that’s always prided itself on both engaging the community and taking risks, these signature events remind us just how vital OMCA remains—and how brilliantly it still delivers on its promise to “present radical topics of relevance.”

In honor of this anniversary, Diablo looks back at a few highlights from OMCA’s five decades.


1. 1973: Trail of Broken Treaties

This landmark show about Native American traditions and rights debuted in 1973, in recognition of the massive cross-country protests in the fall of 1972 that brought American Indian and First Nations issues to the forefront of the national agenda.


OMCA’s Days of the Dead celebration has been a beloved tradition for 25 years. Photo by Shaun Roberts.

2. 1994: Inaugural Days of the Dead Celebration

Twenty-five years ago, OMCA began honoring the Mesoamerican tradition of Days of the Dead through a lively, family-friendly fete. Today, the increasingly popular celebration—which remembers departed loved ones through art, performances, colorful ofrendas, and more—brings the whole community together for this uplifting occasion.


3. 1998: Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush

When OMCA mounted this over-the-top exhibition to commemorate the Gold Rush’s 150th anniversary, it was the biggest-​ever show in the museum’s history. Some 2,000 items were on view in the Great Hall, including one of the gold nuggets that supposedly started the frenzied “rush” to Northern California, as well as a reconstructed miner’s cabin. The exhibition was presented in conjunction with two companion shows, making this the must-see museum event of 1998.


Visitors gathered for an event in OMCA’s gardens 40 years ago. Photo courtesy of Oakland Museum of California.

4. 2000–2001: Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors From China’s Imperial Palace, 1644–1911

This exhibition featured the largest collection of objects ever to come to the United States from Beijing’s massive Palace Museum, the onetime residence of China’s emperors that is said to consist of 9,999 rooms. In addition to showcasing stunning jewelry, furniture, clothing, and works of art, Secret World of the Forbidden City was designed, in part, to spark conversation about Chinese Americans in California and their connections with age-old cultural traditions.


5. 2010: The Reinvention of OMCA

When OMCA reopened in 2010 following a two-year, $58 million renovation, visitors were treated to a brilliant transformation. The remodel, by San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero, maintained the integrity of the original 1969 Kevin Roche–designed building while creating exciting new ways for visitors to interact with and experience the museum.


The Pixar exhibition featured concept art for Finding Nemo. Photo by Ralph Eggleston, Sequence Pastel: First Day, Finding Nemo, 2003. Pastel. © Disney/Pixar

6. 2010–2011: Pixar: 25 Years of Animation

This show offered an unprecedented look at the Emeryville-based animation studio and highlighted the creative work behind beloved films such as Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Up. (And, with Toy Story 4 one of 2019’s top movies, Pixar’s dominance of the computer-​generated animation field seems to be assured for the future.)





A San Francisco cannabis club, as seen in OMCA’s Altered State show. Photo courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance/Thomas Hawk.

7. 2016: Altered State: Marijuana in California

Adult recreational use of marijuana was one of the most hotly debated issues on California’s 2016 ballot, so OMCA saw an opportunity to explore cannabis from an array of angles, including its medicinal uses and its cultivation. By mounting the first major museum show devoted to weed, OMCA proved (once again) that it could fearlessly tackle controversial subjects.


8. 2016–2017: All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50

The Oakland-based Black Panther Party got its start in 1966, with the aim of serving oppressed people and fighting injustice “by any means necessary.” In this multilayered exhibition, OMCA took a close look at the homegrown movement, offering a variety of perspectives on a revolutionary platform that shook the world.


9. 2017: Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing

In honor of the 50th anniversary of photo­grapher Dorothea Lange’s gift of her personal archive to OMCA, the museum drew upon the extensive collection to create a deeply moving exhibition. Images of Dust Bowl migrants and incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II, among other subjects, illustrated the power of photography as a form of social activism.


10. 2018: Respect: Hip-Hop Style and Wisdom

Through photography, video, art, music, dance, and fashion, this interactive show examined how hip-hop evolved from its roots on the streets into a far-reaching and now-mainstream phenomenon. The exhibition also emphasized the Bay Area’s pivotal role as an influence on hip-hop culture.


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