Capturing California

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They love to mock us, those critics to the East. Californians, they sniff, are a shallow breed, a people obsessed with their triceps, their tans and their nonfat double lattes.

California is belittled as an adolescent among states, a region awash in copycat tract homes, a place with no shared traditions, no history.

Today, California will issue a loud retort, christening a museum dedicated to defining the union's 31st state and the diverse multitudes who call it home.

The Golden State Museum, two blocks from the Capitol, is a $10.7-million effort by California to proclaim a collective identity and purpose, a vivid portrait of the state from Gold Rush times right up through today.

"California is sort of an abstraction to a lot of people," said historian and State Librarian Kevin Starr. "We know our own California, the California of our city, our county, our neighborhood. This museum encourages us to make connections and think of California as a whole."

Before you yawn and pick up the remote control, consider that this is no ordinary assemblage of artifacts. Acknowledging the need to entertain as well as educate, its designers have created a place that seems as much amusement park as museum--"a place with the steak as well as the sizzle," as one official put it.

The steak:

* The original 1849 state Constitution, on public display for the first time, in a sealed case monitored by a security camera and guarded by the California Highway Patrol.

* Displays of documents pulled out of the state archives, from a journal excerpt written by Robert F. Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan to an internment order mailed to Japanese American families in Los Angeles in 1942.

* A colorful ceiling mural by Los Angeles artist George Yepes, titled "The Promise," which features the state seal, a grizzly bear and the mythical Roman goddess Minerva.

The sizzle:

* Holographic images of historic figures chatting about California's past.

* An interactive computer game that allows visitors to play politician and move a simulated bill through the Legislature.

* An authentic 1948 bus-turned-theater showcasing videotaped stories of people who found refuge in California, including a slave who bought his freedom with gold he mined in the Sierra and a Vietnamese mother who fled her homeland by boat when Saigon fell.

* A replica of a famed Sacramento eatery and political hangout. Here, visitors sit in booths and, by pressing buttons on tabletop "jukeboxes," eavesdrop on fictional lobbying and strategizing.

"People are used to being fed in sound bites, so we realized we had to give them something special and unique in order to compete," said Bob Jennings, chief assistant secretary of state and coordinator of the museum project. "We certainly didn't want to be boring."

Boring it is not. Indeed, while most visitors who got a sneak peek last week oohed and aahed and said they'd be back for another look, one called the museum "overstimulating."

"With all these TVs going, all this noise, it's hard to concentrate," said the critic, a state employee who asked not to be identified. " . . . It doesn't feel like a museum to me."

That was deliberate. As they strive to broaden their visitor base and compete with other attractions, American museums are reinventing themselves.

In addition to the bells and whistles, the Golden State Museum departs from tradition in how it presents the story of California. Instead of the standard chronological approach, it arranges exhibits according to four themes--people, place, promise and politics.

"We tried to take California history and slice it a different way, looking at the land, the people, their expectations, and finally the political processes that link this all together," said Walter Gray, chief of the state archives.

After paying their $6.50 admission, visitors climb to the second floor of the museum to view an introductory video featuring interviews with experts and the ordinary about California.

Next, patrons stroll past floor-to-ceiling photographs of the state's distinctive landscapes--the Mojave Desert, the Big Sur coast, Mt. Whitney and Lake Tahoe's Emerald Bay.

To enhance the scenery's effect, birds chirp, waves crash and special light filters create the effect of sun splashing through tree branches.

Farther on, a reconstructed surveyor's cabin plays host to one of the more unusual exhibits, designed to underscore California's ever-present tension between development and preservation.

Outside the cabin's window, visitors see a holographic image of John Muir amid some redwood trees. Muir, the state's legendary conservationist, then takes part in an imaginary debate over plans to dam the Tuolumne River in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley to send water to San Francisco.

Nearby, exhibits illustrate the contrast between the forces Californians can control--such as water, harnessed in the wet north to serve the dry south--and the forces they can't, namely earthquakes, fires and floods.

In the people gallery, the designers turned to video again, traveling the state with camera and sound crews to collect the viewpoints of unnamed Californians.

On the ground floor, the theme is politics, and Gray says it is here that the museum tries to "push against the cynicism that is so prevalent regarding the political process, the feeling that my vote doesn't count."

In a series of exhibits that amount to a multi-sensory civics lesson, visitors can learn about the ballot initiative process, view documents from the original California constitutional convention and pause in the Forum, where eight video screens display a collage of messages related to government and politics.

As they wander among the displays, visitors wear headsets hooked to portable CD players. Numbers on the CD tracks correspond to numbers on each exhibit. And there's a separate CD for children, narrated by a fifth-grader from San Francisco.

Integrated into nearly all of the exhibits are materials lifted from the archives, a little-explored treasury of papers and objects previously viewed mainly by historians. Housed on six floors above the museum space, the archives consist of 120 million documents.

At 25,000 square feet, the Golden State Museum is petite as museums go. By contrast, the Getty Museum is a sprawling 360,000 square feet.

While construction of the California museum was funded by state revenue bonds, its operation costs--about $1.3 million annually--will be covered by admission proceeds, grants and donations from corporations and individuals.

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