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‘Marvelous Museum’ exhibit at Oakland Museum of California delves behind the scenes

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What is the purpose of a museum? How does it handle and process its vast collections? “The Marvelous Museum,” artist Mark Dion’s installation on view at the Oakland Museum of California through Saturday, asks and answers these questions.

The Marvelous Museum seeks to poke and prod its audience into considering the hidden life of a museum by offering a peek behind the scenes. Housing more than 1 million artifacts, OMCA provides the perfect landscape for Dion’s exploration of a museum as a living, breathing institution.

Visitors are greeted with a film of a pair of gloved hands handling old glass slides over a light box. Photographs of the ruins of Rome are juxtaposed with a shot of a man walking a tightrope over a river. This apparent disconnect reveals the vast and eclectic array of artifacts a museum may acquire in its lifetime.

Handwritten notations are written on stickers on the slides, a reminder of the obsession with documentation and organized preservation that is at the core of every museum’s mission.

Dion’s recreations of curatorial offices throughout the years are a delight. The contrast of the dark, woody, 19th-century office full of taxidermy with the crisp, bright, modernist world of the contemporary curator is striking.

A room full of closed crates, a wall of paintings and a caged-off selection of itemized objects serves as a re-created storage facility, evoking the mystery of a museum’s vast hidden holdings.

The majority of Dion’s installation pieces, including half-unpacked crates of objects, are scattered throughout OMCA’s art galleries. This provides a fluid guide through the museum’s extensive collection, which includes a sampling of Bay Area figurative painting and sculpture, Gold Rush-era art and photography, and a fine selection of craft and decorative arts.

OMCA is also the home to photographer Dorothea Lange’s personal archives, which is composed of about 25,000 negatives and more than 10,000 prints, including much of her seminal Depression-era work.

Also in the permanent collection is a preview of “Train of Thought,” an upcoming exhibition spanning the 40-year career of mixed-media artist Michael C. McMillen. His meticulously detailed dioramas and theatrical installations, one of which includes a 30-foot deep pond of water, are a reminder of the whimsical sense of discovery that every museum should possess.


The Marvelous Museum

Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland

Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; show closes Saturday

Tickets: $12 general, $8 seniors and students, free for 8 and under

Contact: (510) 238-2200, www.museumca.org

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