What is California? Finding the Answers in Oakland.

The best generalist museum in the Bay Area is not, in fact, in San Francisco, but on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland. Not surprising, when you consider that Oakland, in a way of thinking, is the true center of the region.

From visible examples like the BART commuter rail map, the tangle of freeways at the MacArthur Maze, and the invisible evidence of the  telecom and Internet routing infrastructure pipes below the streets of West Oakland, the ‘continental’ side of San Francisco Bay has always been a web of interconnections. And, while Oakland vs. San Francisco is often compared to Brooklyn vs. Manhattan, it’s important to remember that Oakland, facing towards the rest of America rather than looking out from behind its central metropolis, has always been the region’s front door for people and goods heading West by land.

As we first mentioned in an earlier post, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) combines history, science, and art to tell the story of the Golden State, from its geologic origins to the edges of the technology future. A great place to explore what makes California so exceptional.

California is a Place

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Sure, every state is a ‘place’, isn’t it? But California is one of the few states whose geographic facts (ocean, mountains, climate) are so determinative of almost everything else, and where consciousness of the physical realities of the state is so uppermost in our perception. With the exception of Alaska and Hawaii (for which the geographic perception is pretty much the whole thing), no other state makes its geography so visible and tangible in the everyday lives of its residents. The ‘placeness’ of California is essential to understanding its people, history, and politics.

California is a Culture

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California is at once part of, and separate from, the rest of American culture. Again, this is true, more or less, of every state, but in California it is taken to an exceptional degree. Most states share regional inflections of the common national culture, but on the West Coast there is a way of living and understanding the world almost unique to the state.

From an open and tolerant social culture, an entrepreneurial, risk-taking business culture, to a consensus-driven, practical political culture (especially as compared against ideological political cultures such as Texas’), the state seems to stand for something in terms of human societies.

California is a Story

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If, as Will Rogers observed, San Francisco is a ‘story city’, then California as a whole is a ‘story state’. With a few others (notably Louisiana, Massachusetts, and, again, Texas) California tells a narrative that unfolds over centuries. Despite the suburbs and uniformity, in California you are conscious of the historical events that led to and inform the present day.

This historical consciousness is present when we talk about the Internet era or the World War II boom as a second’Gold Rush, explanations of the state’s civil rights movements as part of a trend of tolerance that started with the instant societies of the 1850s, as well as understanding ethnic and demographic changes toward an increasingly plural society.

For my part, I’ve been so intrigued by the many parallels between California of the 1850s and America in the 2010s that I’ve started a small project about it.

OK. That’s my view. Herewith some photos to let you explore some more of the awesome OMCA for yourself.

Sean Ketchem Avatar

About the author

I’m Sean Ketchem, living in Berlin with two passports, two cats, and a fascination for history and culture.

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