Just in time for the opening of the East Span of the Bay Bridge, the Oakland Museum of California opens its latest showing in the series of exhibitions about the San Francisco Bay. Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay is an exhaustive collection of oddities and stories about how Bay inhabitants have interacted with their surroundings for the past 6,000 years.

Though the exhibit is segmented into “Above” and “Below” sections, separating the stories about the shoreline from the stories underwater, taken as a whole, the exhibit seeks to break down this division. The history of the Bay reveals that what happens underwater will resurface, as it eventually makes contact with the shoreline, and thus, people.

The large projection of a U.S. Geological Survey video of the Bay floor one faces when they enter the exhibit proposes a reorientation of what is above and below, as  “Below” the Bay lies an unseen topography, with its own storied landscape, shaped as much by interactions with humans as it is with movements of currents and tides.

The exhibit, a cabinet of curiosities spread generously throughout the museum’s Great Hall, relies on a comprehensive assemblage of artifacts, ranging from cannonballs shot from Alcatraz Island in 1860s placed alongside maps of shipwrecks to the Bay Bridge’s original clock and “Stop Pay Toll” sign. Even the array of contaminants is displayed with quirkiness, in a grand glass wall.

There is a perverse, scientific excitement about the labeled contaminants and bottled Leopard Shark and Jacksmelt, and that these strange, lifeless things all exist in one room forms a shrine to an older Bay. The exhibit organizers had access to the SF Estuary Institute’s artifacts as well as Caltrans’ “boneyard,” and the result is a sense of discovery and wonder that pervades the exhibit.

Who had known of the existence of Drawbridge, an old marsh town in the South Bay that became a ghost town by 1979 and is now slowly sinking into the bay? A Drawbridge cabin, complete with a recreated interior, invites visitors to step into the life a 1920s fisher and hunter.

Cannonballs retrieved from the Bay. Image Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California.

Cannonballs retrieved from the Bay. Image Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California.

The almost dizzying array of subject matters and media makes it difficult to construct an overarching narrative to the exhibit, other than a recurring pattern of humans playing with the Bay and reconstructing it as they see fit—sometimes mercilessly. Some of the decisions have been more shortsighted than others. Posters and videos of the inauguration of the Bay Bridge in 1936 are celebratory—at the time of its completion it was the longest bridge in the world—while the City of Emeryville’s development on the former site of the Shellmounds in 1999 is a decision that continues to haunt many in the community.

One of the most poignant segments of the exhibit is a collection of framed posters from Indian People Organizing for Change, declaring opposition to the development, along with a history of the Shellmounds. A corresponding rendering depicts a view of what pre-contact Emeryville with Shellmounds may have looked like. The exhibit also calls attention the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, memorializing both of the often-overlooked struggles.

An homage to the Shellmounds. Image courtesy of Oakland Museum of California.

An homage to the Shellmounds. Image courtesy of Oakland Museum of California.

The exhibit does a good job of building bridges from the environmental world to the cultural world — the one most of us are more familiar with — as it shows how many current debates about the Bay Area’s development and future stem from previous interactions and alterations with the land. A documentary by David Washburn and photos by Bay Area photographer Douglas Adesko picture contemporary debates over the future of the shoreline as it sheds its historic military bases and the Port of Oakland eyes expansion.

The exhibit concludes in the “Futures Lounge,” an area for visitors to reflect on how they would transform the shoreline. The lounge also contains renderings drawn by various design firms speculating on the future of the Bay, and how to combine the growing population with the land more peaceably. Though not much space is devoted to these plans, Above and Below gives Bay Area residents much to reflect on.

Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay is on view until February 23 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, www.museumca.org.

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