Representative of the city's transformation is the Oakland Museum of California, near Lake Merritt, which reopened in May after a $62-million renovation. The architecture and landscaping remain true to its original 1969 Midcentury Modern design: The galleries and public spaces are brighter and more open, and there is more room to showcase the museum's strong collection and new acquisitions.

The first inkling I had that this museum was going to be different was a sign near the entrance that read, "Don't Lick the Paintings." You many not be able to lick them, but the museum tour is a highly participatory, hands-on experience. "An elementary school teacher must have designed this, I told my husband, Lou, as we explored the Gallery of California Art. The works are divided into categories — California land, people and creativity — similar to elementary school themes.

Next up was the Gallery of California History with its cleverly presented collection. There are interactive games and drawers to open with hidden treasures; an old car's dusty windshield showcases Dorothea Lange's photographs, and the history of the state's agriculture is written on labels of canned goods. In this "museum of the people," visitors are encouraged to be collaborators by adding their own stories to the exhibits.

The Gallery of California Natural Sciences won't open until next year. But until then, there are plenty of exhibitions to see. "Contemporary Coda," a look at "current perspectives on the Spanish conquest of California," and "Splendors of Faith/Scars of Conquest," featuring art from the missions of New Spain, run through May 29; "Sneek Peek: Michael C. McMillen — Train of Thought," a 40-year retrospective of the multimedia artist's work, appears until Aug. 14.

Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, (510) 238-2200,