Gertrude Stein did hers and now anybody will do theirs. The Oakland Museum of California has invited me into their galleries to write my autobiography. That's not how they put it, but it's how I've taken it. Today is my first day. There's nothing to say yet.
This blog's title is borrowed from Gertrude Stein's 1937 memoir, which contains the following passage describing her and Alice B. Toklas's return to the Bay Area where they both grew up:
We began to do everything Gertrude Atherton took us to eat the smallest oysters there are and in a quantity they are the best oysters there are. She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.
This is the origin of that much-quoted line about Oakland. As the sociologist Chris Rhomberg points out in his study of the city, No There There, it's a phrase that's often interpreted as a disparagement of the city as an urban wasteland "nonspace," but it's less about the social or cultural conditions in Oakland in the 1930s and more about the author's entirely personal discomfort in returning to the site of her childhood home — a place she finds at once painfully familiar and entirely unrecognizable. A few pages after the famous line, Stein continues her account:
we went to Oakland and we went to Mills College in San Leandro and I asked to go with a reluctant feeling to see the Swett School where I went to school and Thirteenth Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street where we lived which I described in The Making of Americans. Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and over-grown the houses were certainly some of them those that had been and there were not bigger buildings and they were neglected and, lots of grass and bushes growing yes it might have been the Thirteenth Avenue when I had been. Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not any longer existing, what was the use, if I had been I then my little dog would know me but if I had not been I then that place would not be the place that I could see, I did not like the feeling, who has to be themselves inside them, not any one and what is the use of having been if you are to be going on being and if not why is it different and if it is different why not. I did not like anything that was happening.
Museums, like Gertrude Stein, have a complicated and sometimes uncomfortable relationship with their past. They exist to preserve and contextualize objects from history, but museums are themselves historical objects — things that have been and yet must still go on being. Museums embody this sense that Stein describes of having "to be themselves inside them." The Oakland Museum of California is in the process of remaking itself: the art and history galleries have been overhauled, and the natural science gallery is closed through 2012 for renovation.
Objects that may have been on display since the museum opened in 1969 — that may have been on display in Oakland for even longer, in one of the three existing collections, each with hundred-year histories — stand alongside recent acquisitions. Contemporary artworks stand in close proximity to paintings from the nineteenth century. I should be able to think of a better example. Behind the scenes of the galleries, material culture spanning hundreds of years and from around the globe crams a warehouse filled with shelves.
This is the experience of writing an autobiography: I being I, I confront my past. Why is it different, and if it is different, why not? The intersection where Gertrude Stein grew up, Twenty-fifth Street and Thirteenth Avenue, is about a mile and a half from the museum. What would I find if I walked there from here? Would I like what was happening? Would a little dog recognize me?
These are the sorts of trips I'll be taking, both inside the museum and around it. And, as this is "Everybody's Autobiography," I'll also invite writers and artists from the Bay Area into the museum; their reports and findings will appear here. The Oakland Museum of California is at once a California art museum, a California history museum, and a museum focused on California's natural environment; this blog will pursue all three areas of interest. This Monday I'll accompany three geologists to Pinnacles National Monument, where we'll crawl around caves looking for traces of uranium — which could lead to a better understanding of climate change in California. I'll also spend a lot of time sitting in the galleries, staring at paintings and objects and staring at the people staring at the paintings and objects. If you see a partially blind dude with a tape recorder, that's me. Please come tell me your story. You should be happy to answer my questions: as Gertrude Stein says, "it always is interesting to answer anything."
I'll also be talking to the Museum's staff and looking through the archives and collections in search of interesting things one might not otherwise encounter while walking around the galleries.
Posts will come at least once a week, usually more. After I get back from the caves, I'll walk to Twenty-fifth Street and see what's there.