Cultural museums of San Francisco

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Exploring three of San Francisco’s most educational museums

I’ve always been a big fan of museums. Maybe it’s because my wife is an archaeologist. Or because my parents dragged me to tons of museums as a kid. Maybe it’s because I like to learn new things. Heck, maybe it’s just because I like hanging out in big buildings.

Whatever the reason for my museum-mania, I’ve learned one thing over the years: Not all museums are created equal.

Generally speaking, I prefer those museums that showcase history AND culture at the same time.

Thankfully, San Francisco—the nearest big city to my home—has plenty of cultural museums to go around. Here’s a rundown on three of my favorite such places in San Francisco.

Museum of the African Diaspora

One of the most interesting cultural museums in town is the Museum of the African Diaspora, or MOAD. This modern spot, on the corner of Mission Street and Third Avenue, showcases the history, art, and cultural richness that resulted from the migration of Africans throughout the world.

The museum is remarkable for its broad look—it doesn’t only focus on people who hail from one part of Africa, but instead spotlights all cultures from just about every corner of the African continent.

MOAD sidewalk mural celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.

The result is a wonderful environment that celebrates a variety of cultures in a multitude of ways. Some of the exhibits emphasize art. Others emphasize music. Still others emphasize different manifestations of culture: food, sports, dance, fashion, and more.

Over the years I’ve seen incredibly powerful exhibits at the museum—one about patchwork quilts by Africans in India, another about Grupo Antillano and the art of Afro-Cuba. It’s also worth checking out an online-only exhibit that compiles a number of slavery narratives; stories about how individual slaves and their families survived enslavement.

An exhibit on the art of Elizabeth Catlett was expected to run through April 5, 2015.

Contemporary Jewish Museum

The first thing that strikes you about the Contemporary Jewish Museum is the architecture—the building blends old structures with new ones, and includes a wing that appears from the outside as a giant glass cube.

Architecture nerds will recognize the building as a Daniel Libeskind; laypeople just think it’s cool.

Inside, exhibits tell the story of modern Jewish culture around the world. Subject matter ranges from the uber-local (one exhibit spotlights Warren Hellman, the Bay Area philanthropist behind the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival) to the international (a 2014 exhibit displayed the early works of H.A. Rey, the author of Curious George).

The exhibits rotate regularly and often; generally the museum cycles through new material at least twice a year.

Viewfinder Tip: When visiting the Contemporary Jewish Museum, grab matzoh ball soup and lunch at Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, located inside.

As a family travel writer who covers day-trips in the Bay Area, my absolute favorite thing about the Contemporary Jewish Museum is its commitment to families. The museum offers weekly and monthly family programs that incorporate all-ages arts-and-crafts. Sometimes there even are family-oriented dance and music classes. In many cases, these programs also tie back into exhibits.

Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The Asian Art Museum holds the distinction of being the largest museum in the Western world devoted exclusively to Asian art. With 18,000 objects and 6,000 years of history, the museum offers enough material to keep visitors interested for weeks.

I’ve visited 11 times and feel I still haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s there.

Included in the mix are objects ranging from tiny jades to monumental sculptures. The museum features superb paintings, porcelains, arms and armor, furniture, textiles, and bronzes. There’s even a 16th Century Japanese temple bell, which is rung to celebrate every New Year.

Exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Many of the finest objects in the museum’s collection were donated by Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage in the 1960s. Perhaps the most famous piece Brundage ever donated is a gilded bronze Buddha image that dates back to 338 A.D., making it the oldest known dated Chinese Buddha in the world.

Another masterpiece: a rhinoceros vessel, which museum conservators suspect was used in some sort of ritual. The museum recently held a contest through which visitors could name the rhino; participants chose the name, Reina (it means “queen” in Spanish and Tagalog).

In addition, the Asian Art Museum also produces storytelling workshops, theater performances, and concerts. Before planning your visit, check the events calendar to see what’s on deck.

What kind of museums do you like best and why?

Expedia compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site, such compensation may include travel and other costs.

Matt Villano

In more than 20 years as a professional journalist, Matt Villano has had articles published in outlets including TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Entrepreneur, to name a few. He currently blogs about family travel at WanderingPod.com, and occasionally covers family travel for Family Fun and Scholastic Parent & Child magazines. Villano also wrote the family travel blog for Parenting magazine, and an adventure travel blog for SeeAmerica.com (a one-time website of Brand USA). In addition to travel, Villano’s areas of expertise are business, technology and gambling. When he’s not working at his stand-up desk, Villano is chasing after his three daughters, both of whom are future New York Yankees fans. His favorite destination on Earth is his (adopted) hometown of Healdsburg, California. No. 2 on the list: Vancouver Island, British Columbia (specifically Tofino). For more about Villano, visit Whalehead.com.

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