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Museum Mayhem

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You know what's better than a museum? A free museum.

You know what's better than a free museum? Twenty-six free museums.

Saturday, two baker’s dozen of the best museums in Sacramento swung open their doors and let in every Tom, Dick and Harry, free of charge. Gratis. Complimentary. On the house. Floated.

Now, my motto has always been "If it's free, I'll take three," so I fought through a wicked head cold and really bad sniffles (I know, I know. Maybe I did take the Waaaaaaaambulance. So what?), and headed down to Old Sac to take my reward. And I took my reward.

I may have to change my motto to the far less catchy, but way more accurate, "if it's free, I'll take six."

The lucky half dozen, in chronological order: The California State Military Museum, Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum, Sacramento History Museum, California State Railroad Museum, California State Capitol Museum and The California Museum.

California State Military Museum-
My first stop on this beautiful Saturday morning, it was heavily guarded by a variety of military vehicles parked out front. One of them appeared to be a military fire truck. Be still my beating heart.

I ventured inside and was pleased to be greeted by guns, guns and more guns. For my money, as far as weaponry goes, there may be nothing cooler than the multi barrel machine gun. Maxim guns, battery guns, they have a plethora of these mean looking SOBs on display therein. I wanted to call them all Gatling guns, but it turns out I was mistaken. Volunteer Tom Burke was happy to explain the difference.
The Gatling gun is hand-operated, and the Maxim is self-powered – using the energy from the recoil to eject the spent cartridges. The Gatling gun can fire up to 200 rounds a minute. The Maxim, 600. A multi-barrel gun with an outside power source? 3,000. Dang.
Have you ever seen a .50 caliber machine gun? I have. Have you ever held a Russian submachine gun? Ditto. Thanks to the California Military Museum.

The Schoolhouse Museum-
Whereas the military museum had been well-peopled, the schoolhouse was packed, mostly with children (makes sense, if you think about it). They seemed to all be having a good time, which is something of a coup, considering they were in a schoolhouse on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I think the free cake may have had something to do with it. The volunteers, all schoolmarmed-out, were exceedingly friendly. They had a peach basket set up on the wall in the corner where a few kids were shooting hoops. I didn't see any of them make it. I'll be honest, I was in and out like a jewelry heist. I like kids fine, but not 30 at a time. God bless those schoolmarms.

The Sacramento History Museum-
Next, I walked across Old Sac to the History Museum, stopping only to grab a free sample of saltwater taffy at the candy store. I'd also stopped there on the way to the schoolhouse. Like I said, if it's free…

I passed the greedy hordes out front panning for gold and entered the museum. I was struck immediately by the old-time printing press to the right of the entrance. There is a certain magic to the care with which the printed word used to be created. What is now so simple was once so labor-intensive (typesetting!). I spent a few minutes watching the old fellows work in the print shop before venturing into the museum proper.

Probably my favorite part of the museum was the section with the old farm tools, like the "Sure Pop Almond Huller" and the "Simpson Butter Cutter." (If you're like me, next time you go up to Apple Hill, be sure to check out the Larsen Pioneer Farm Museum. It's fantastic.)

I also really enjoyed the exhibit on Sacramento landmark Dunlap's Dining Room. . . they just don't make places like that anymore, and it's a shame.

By the time I left, the museum had reached capacity, and a small line had formed out front.

California State Railroad Museum-
A couple of my most vivid early childhood memories involve trains: playing with my grandfather’s train sets in the attic of their home in Portsmouth Ohio; and a family train ride I took from New York City to Ohio, during which we played canasta and I saw a man open a beer bottle using his eye socket.

I also used to take the train up to school in Eugene, Ore. I love trains. If it were economically and logistically feasible, I would do all of my traveling by rail. It's really the only way to travel.

Of all the museums I visited, I was probably most excited to visit the Railroad Museum.

It did not disappoint. I even really enjoyed the educational film that plays on the half hour, at the end of which the screen rises to unveil a massive steam engine, barreling through a tunnel blown through solid rock. Pretty dramatic.

I could, and one day will, spend hours meandering through the myriad railroad-related exhibits, but on this day, and in my weakened state, the museum was a bit too crowded for me to fully enjoy it.

Many of the train walk-through exhibits had good-sized lines to get in, and once inside, the people were packed in shoulder-to-shoulder. Neither of these situations was very appealing to me, so I chose to fight another day, and did only a cursory walkthrough, consciously not looking at anything too thoroughly so as to save it for next time. Man, that is nerdy.

I'll be back soon.

State Captiol Museum-
I'll admit it, I was just padding my stats here. I was walking to the California Museum, and this was en route. I spent maybe 10 minutes inside. I was hoping it would be a shortcut, but the doors on the south end weren't open. Doh. Don't get me wrong, it's well worth the visit, but I'd been there fairly recently with some friends from out of town. 

The California Museum-
With the Railroad Museum, this was my co-favorite of the museums I visited. The California Hall of Fame is very cool and eclectic (James Cameron, Charles Schultz, Merle Haggard, Barbara Streisand and Mark Zuckerberg are all in the 2010 club. The California Hall of Fame makes for strange bedfellows, apparently.), but my favorite exhibits were the "Uprooted! The Japanese Americans during WWII" and the "Psychedelic Poster Art 1965-1975."

Both exhibits are awesome.

The Japanese Internment during World War II is one of the more embarrassing acts in American history, and it is an episode that is oft-overlooked or glossed over. I remember it being discussed very briefly, maybe in a sixth grade American History class, but we certainly didn't dedicate an entire class period to it, or even a large portion of one. I think, in our history books, we had maybe one secondary paragraph devoted to the internment, set aside in the corner of a page with a different color background.

The exhibit does a great job of showing what internment was like from a Japanese-American perspective, and the volunteers like Sacramento native Mas Hatano, who spent three of his teenage years in Tuli Lake Internment Camp on the Oregon border, do even better.

Said the still spry and extremely sharp Hatano: "The more people know about this, the less likely it is to happen again." It's hard to believe that something like this could have happened here such a short time ago, but a lot less so when speaking with a man who lived through it. I wish I'd had an opportunity to visit such an exhibit, and speak with such a man, when I was a sixth grader.

The Psychedelic Poster Art Exhibit was awesome… ’cause it's psychedelic poster art. I mean, a poster for The First Annual Sacramento Pop Festival, Oct. 15, 1967 featuring Jefferson Airplane and Strawberry Alarm Clock at Hughes Stadium? "Donation $3.00 in advance, $3.50 at the stadium Box off. Come and go as you please, visit psychedelic shops at the festival." Don't mind if I do. If you don't get a kick out of that, I'm not sure we should hang out anymore.

Six museums in just under five hours: I absolutely owned Free Museum Day. And so did many of you: The Sacramento History Museum had 3,233 visitors on Saturday, up from an average Saturday attendance of around 200. The California Museum had approximately 4,000 visitors, up from the same Saturday average of around 200. And the Railroad Museum, which brings in somewhere between 800 and 1,000 visitors on an average Saturday, pulled in 13,742.

As Paul Hammond, museum director for the Sacramento History and Railroad Sector, put it: "This event is a wonderful opportunity for the spotlight to shine on museums in the region. There are so many museums right here in the greater Sacramento area, and this event gives the community an opportunity to sample the many possibilities and become more familiar with them."

And sample we did, voraciously.

Consider my appetite whetted. 

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