Are you a museum lover? Museums everywhere are opening their doors to visitors. Worldwide, treasured institutions are curating vivid virtual tours and exquisite traveling exhibits. As a result, access to our museum treasures has never been more approachable or more intriguing.
Berkeley, California, has over 30 museums covering every topic imaginable and a few you might not have thought of. You can immerse yourself in subjects from anthropology to zoology. Many collections and museums that are associated with UC Berkeley are open to the public. All are exceptionally-curated. Some are conventional, some are curious.
Defining A Museum
Giant stone buildings filled with musty paintings and dinosaur bones are what comes to many folks’ minds when you say museum. But, if you love museums as I do, you know there’s more to it than artifacts in old buildings.
Dictionaries say a museum is “an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value” or “a building or place where works of art, scientific specimens, or other objects of permanent value are kept and displayed.”
As this Britannica article says, “given their diverse origins, varying philosophies, and differing roles in society, museums do not lend themselves to rigid classification.”
Museums are living entities that change as new discoveries are made, whether it’s science, art, music, literature, or an unknown insect. Displays are long past glass cases filled with objects. Many room-sized virtual reality exhibits are touring the U.S.
In this roundup, I’ve included the traditional and the unusual. There are small museums within libraries, museums without walls, private museums, and virtual museums. Some of the places I loosely interpreted as museums.
Here are my most beloved Berkeley museums, some traditional, some avant-garde, and some undefinable.
1. Berkeley Art Museum And Film Archive
This gorgeous building housing Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) holds two museums. A modern art museum and a film museum reside in the same location. The quality and diversity of the University of California visual arts center are unsurpassed.
All BAMPFA’s art is modern. You might see ancient themes and techniques reimagined for today’s culture. The space is vast, with three-floor ceilings. The building is a work of art. Everyone can immerse in the making, teaching, and viewing of modern art.
Experience the Berkeley Art Museum through exhibits, an amphitheater, an in-house library, a study center, the Fisher Family Art Lab, quiet reading rooms, a mezzanine café, and an outstanding gift shop.
The world’s largest film archive is lovingly preserved at Pacific Film Archive. This ever-growing collection is kept in a climate-controlled bubble. However, you can attend showings of archived films in the center’s state-of-the-art theater. Every style, era, and language is shown.
Thank you Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive for the press pass to BAMPFA.
2. Phoebe A. Hearst Museum Of Anthropology
Hearst’s collected works, exhibitions, and classes are a resource where “cultures connect.” Artifacts from around the world illustrate daily life, art, music, celebrations, and ceremonies from the diverse cultures of man.
When it’s not open, you can experience the museum virtually with Hearst From Home. Encounter exhibits, collections, and classes.
3. UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens
Perhaps you don’t think of a garden as a museum. However, this living museum is a 34-acre garden with a diverse landscape. There are over 10,000 plants here. Many are rare and endangered.
Started in 1890, the garden has nine zones covering Italy to South Africa. In addition, there is a collection of native California plants. It is remarkable.
After visiting the California section, wander through the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden. Next, stop and smell the Garden of Old Roses. You can also enjoy the Tropical House and Arid House. Don’t miss the drought-tolerant ferns. Find orchids and carnivorous plants. Useful plants such as herbs are collected together. Many, many uncommon and unusual species are showcased.
Exhibitions, talks, workshops, and the Redwood Grove Festival are scheduled year-round.
4. Aftel Archive Of Curious Scents
Mandy’s exquisite museum will teach you a thing or two about what fragrances are your favorites. You will also learn about fragrance and its many uses throughout time.
On a tree-lined Berkley street, perfumer Mandy Aftel, has curated a scents museum. Her exhaustive understanding of aromas was gained during her career as a perfumer. Her outstanding collection of scent-related objects is captivating.
Mandy’s Scent Organ has over 300 essences. The device is a tool for finding and creating your individual scent. Then, if you like, Mandy will formulate it for you and transfer the liquid or solid to the size and style container you desire. Aftel has clients worldwide. Each has their personal perfume handmade by Mandy.
The structure housing the museum was built by the Aftel’s. The work of art and a lovely, inviting space with warm woods and loads of sunlight; it’s also a space for classes. Here you can learn how to choose, make, and wear scents. Visit Mandy’s website for museum hours and tickets.
5. Berkeley Freehouse
Berkeley Freehouse isn’t a museum, but a historic building. During the 1960s, free speech and human rights activist, Mario Savio, held meetings in this building. Stroll around the halls for photos of the infamous meetings and other free speech activities of the era.
Today it’s a gastropub and is one of the best spots for food and libation near the UC Berkeley campus. Elevated pub grub, craft beer, and cocktails are top-shelf. This is a busy place from happy hour until late evening. There’s an amiable crowd and excellent service.
6. Berkeley City Club
On the National Register of Historic Places, Berkeley City Club is not an official museum, but it should be. It stands as a monument to the California architect Julia Morgan. She designed over 700 buildings in her life, including many parts of Hearst Castle.
Morgan designed the Women’s City Club. It was built and opened in 1930. Called “Little Castle,” Julia’s masterpiece was a much-needed social and activity center for women. In 1963, the club opened to women and men, and the name became Berkeley City Club.
Today, the decidedly “Morrish with touches of Gothic” design is a hotel, restaurant, and event space. Romantic is the best way to describe the interior of the City Club. The hotel is highly rated and includes a fabulous “it should be in a movie” indoor pool.
Julia’s Restaurant, a French restaurant at Berkeley City Club, is outstanding. In fact, I call it an “edible museum.” The food, service, and atmosphere are classic fine dining, serving classic French cuisine. White linen, crystal, china, silver, and beautiful flowers dress each table. The dining room is quiet, and the service is discreet. It’s lovely to see “continental” food and service are still practiced in Berkeley’s California casual domain.
The food is sublime. Ingredients are sourced locally, and everything is housemade — even the butter. The roasted chicken I had for my “splurge” dinner was juicy, flavorful, and perfectly seasoned. I dream about it.
7. The Graduate Berkeley
From the hundreds of yellow National Geographic magazines behind the reception counter to photos, posters, and décor in rooms and public spaces, the Graduate is reminiscent of college days past and present.
The Graduate Berkeley is downtown on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus. Once home to the Durant Hotel, Graduate Hotels purchased and renovated the property giving it their signature look commemorating school days. Each Graduate hotel is in a university town.
Graduate Berkeley is across the street from the university campus. My room on the sixth floor had a view of Sather Tower, which houses the Berkeley Campanile. I had a spacious king with all the usual amenities.
There is a delicious restaurant and bar called Henry’s in the lobby. Enjoy a fitness center, e-charging parking spots, pet-friendly, and loaner bikes. The staff was exceptional. They were very helpful when I arrived hours early, before my room was ready. They know the area and are happy to help. That goes for desk and restaurant staff.
More Berkeley Museums To Explore
Here is an alphabetical list of more museum lovers’ happy places. I didn’t scout all of these in person, but I did research their websites and found them to be interesting. I have five on my list for my return to Berkeley. Check their websites for hours and exhibits.
- Bancroft Library
- The Berkeley Folklore Program Archive
- Berkeley Historical Society
- Berkeley Language Center Collections and Archives
- Berkeley Natural History Museums
- C.V. Starr East Asian Library Digital Collections
- Essig Museum of Entomology
- Habitot Children’s Museum
- Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles
- Lawrence Hall of Science
- The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life
- Media Resources Center
- Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
- Sake Museum
- UC Museum of Paleontology
Getting To Berkeley
The closest airport is Oakland, with San Francisco not much farther. I recommend San Francisco if you don’t want to drive. You can take BART from the airport straight to downtown Berkeley. If you plan to drive, Oakland is closer and easier.
Berkeley is a walkable city. The streets are safe, and public transit is frequent and inexpensive. In addition, this compact city practically has museums on every corner, a true museum lover’s happy place.
To learn more about exploring Berkeley, go to Visit Berkeley.
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