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Day at the museum: a local's guide to the Bay's best museums

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JUNE 20, 2016

If you’re in Berkeley this summer, your main relaxation goal is probably to grab a leisurely lunch at the Cheese Board Collective or maybe head out to appreciate some Bay views. But the Bay Area has so much to offer once you get beyond Shattuck Avenue and Telegraph Avenue. As a massive artistic and cultural center, the Bay Area has tons of fascinating museums, with exhibits on topics ranging from great works of modern art to marijuana use. Spend a day museum hopping in San Francisco or check out the great views from university museums in the Berkeley Hills.

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

A world-class university such as Berkeley is bound to have museums to house its extensive collections. Unfortunately, few of them are open to the public regularly. One exception is the recently opened Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, home to the UC Berkeley Art collections of Ming and Qing dynasty paintings, old master prints and early American paintings, as well as the largest collection of Japanese films outside of Japan. The main collections, including exhibits on sexual identity and modern American art, open June 29, with exhibits of the Berkeley Chinese painting collection and the photographic portraits of abolitionist Sojourner Truth coming later in the summer.

Lawrence Hall of Science

Those of us who grew up in the East Bay have fond childhood memories of climbing on the museum’s giant DNA model or the life-sized blue whale. But the Lawrence Hall of Science also has a lot to offer curious adults. A new exhibit on exploring other planets includes a game that allows you to land the Mars Rover, and the ever-popular outdoor science park lets you play with a network of sluices to explore the ways in which water has shaped the Bay Area. The museum cafeteria also features fantastic views over the Bay. Take the Hill Service shuttle from campus on weekdays or the 65 bus from Downtown and enhance your trip with a stroll through the surrounding hills or nearby Tilden Park.

Botanical Gardens

Set in the Berkeley Hills and an easy walk up from Strawberry Canyon, the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden is free for UC Berkeley students and contains plants from nearly every continent, focusing on those native to Mediterranean climates similar to the Bay Area. It also features displays of ferns from dry climates, orchids, carnivorous plants and old roses — rose hybrids developed before 1867. Regular concerts are held here in the summer. Take the Hill Line Shuttle directly from Hearst Mining Circle.

Takara Sake Museum

Berkeley is home to the only sake museum in the United States. Held at the American branch of one of the largest sake companies in Japan, the museum has dioramas on the sake production process and sake tasting of a variety of flavors for up to $10. One interesting display shows sake production in the 19th century, from washing and steaming the rice, to fermenting the rice, all the way through brewing, filtering and bottling.

Oakland Museum

A must for those interested in Bay Area history and culture, the Oakland Museum of California currently features the first-ever major museum exhibition on marijuana, where you can touch pot leaves, watch old marijuana PSAs and share your experiences with the drug in the “cannabis confessional.” Warriors fans can check out the exhibit on team memorabilia, and everyone is sure to be buzzed by the bee exhibit. Don’t miss the permanent gallery on California history, which includes maps with all the proposals for shapes California could have taken, as well as presentations on the Gold Rush and Spanish colonial eras and an interactive Hollywood exhibit that lets you design costumes and animate your own short film.

Playland Not at the Beach (El Cerrito)

For the consciously retro or the technologically jaded, a return to the good old-fashioned era of pinball machines is just what the doctor ordered. Set in an old market building a few blocks south of El Cerrito Del Norte BART station, the museum features pinball and other games, magic shows, moving dioramas and exhibits on historical San Francisco arcades. For the $15 admission fee, you can spend as long as you want at the 30-plus pinball machines set to free play.

Asian Art Museum

A summer exhibit at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum features highlights from the national palace museum in Taiwan. Originally housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the collection was taken to Taipei in 1949. In Taipei, tourists once waited in line for hours to see works such as a priceless block of stone carved in the Qing dynasty to resemble pork belly — a work now travelling outside of Asia for the first time. The exhibit will also showcase calligraphy written by a 12th century emperor and innovative ceramics, including an intricately decorated pot with moving parts. A highlight of the museum’s permanent collections is the oldest Buddha ever found in China. Try the delicious pan-Asian museum restaurant as well, or go on Sunday or Wednesday to catch the farmers market around the corner after basking in the glory of imperial Chinese art.

Disney Museum

Located in the Presidio, an old military base with gorgeous Bay views, the Disney Museum includes a history of Walt Disney’s life and the creation of the Disney company, as well as exhibits on the details of animation. Owned and managed by the Disney family, this museum glosses over some of the controversy surrounding Walt Disney but is still well-worth a visit. The current special exhibition features art from the design process of “Pinocchio,” and the museum screens Disney movies most afternoons. Check for other events in the Presidio the day of your visit — Off the Grid food truck picnics are sometimes held nearby on summer Sundays.


After a multi-year refurbishment process, SFMOMA finally reopened this spring with a massive collection spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. Highlights include works by Jackson Pollack, Richard Serra and Nam June Paik, as well as a gallery with almost a dozen mobiles by Alexander Calder. Nearby are the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, both smaller museums well worth a visit.

Contact Mira Chaplin at [email protected].

JUNE 20, 2016