125 Years of the de Young

For the past 125 years, the art museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park has existed in three different buildings and has been known by several different names: the Fine Arts Building, the Golden Gate Park Memorial Museum, the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, and the de Young. This timeline celebrates the de Young museum’s 125 years in Golden Gate Park and presents a snapshot of various events in the museum’s history. 

The Memorial Museum, Golden Gate Park by Willard E. Wordende Young museum

The de Young’s Early Days

The museum originated with the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, a monumental exhibition of technological innovation and artwork. Once the exposition closed, Michael H. de Young, the exposition’s director general, encouraged the park commissioners and San Francisco residents to maintain the Fine Arts Building as a public museum. On March 23, 1895, the newly founded museum opened and exhibited painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; historical objects from across the globe; and a natural history collection. 

The Fine Arts Building following the San Francisco earthquake that struck on April 18, 1906de Young museum


April 18, 1906: The San Francisco earthquake and the ensuing fire devastate a large portion of the city. Statues, vases, and porcelain artifacts, and the building’s Egyptian-style ornamental elements, are severely damaged. The museum is forced to close for over a year, reopening in November 1907. 

Enchantment (1915) by Melvin Earl Cummingsde Young museum


April 17, 1915: "First Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture by California Artists." This exhibition of works by California artists allows the artists to present and sell their pieces in the museum. Sculptor Melvin Earl Cummings’s "Enchantment" (ca. 1915), one of the works on view, became the basis for the sculpture at the center of the Pool of Enchantment, which was completed and placed at the entrance of the museum in 1920. Since 2005, the redesigned Pool of Enchantment has been situated on the site of the museum’s original Egyptian Revival–style building.

Aerial view showing the two museum buildings (1920)de Young museum


1929–1931: The de Young’s original Egyptian Revival–style building, constructed for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition and known as the Fine Arts Building, is demolished, leaving its sister building—designed by Louis Christian Mullgardt, embellished with Spanish Plateresque details, and built in stages beginning in 1917—to stand alone. A new wing is added to the Mullgardt building, providing the museum with eighteen additional galleries. 

Painters refurbish the museum’s glass ceiling (1935)de Young museum


1934-1935: The State Emergency Relief Administration provides support to the museum. Unemployed workers are hired to make structural improvements to the building as well as to construct a room for prints, a textiles study room, and a library, which open in 1935. These additions expand the de Young’s ability to engage with researchers and visitors and provide access to resources for the general public.

Building’s facade remains plain for the next fifty years (1953)de Young museum


1949: Throughout the 1940s, the concrete Plateresque decorations on the museum’s facade deteriorate and begin to fall off the building, and by 1949, as part of a renovation campaign, the decorative concrete ornamentation is fully stripped from the exterior.

A gallery view of the “I Remember Mama” exhibition (1955)de Young museum


July 2–December 5, 1955:  “'I Remember Mama': Costumes and Accessories of the Late-Victorian and Edwardian Periods." This exhibition of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fashion includes dresses, shoes, and headwear tracing the development of fashion in San Francisco from the late-Victorian period to 1910. “I Remember Mama” refers to a popular 1948 Hollywood movie of the same name. All of the dresses on view had been recently donated by San Francisco residents, and many of the pieces were inspired by the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition.

An installation view of Ruth Asawa’s first solo show in San Francisco (1960)de Young museum


April 27–May 26, 1960: "Ruth Asawa: Sculptures and Drawings." The museum hosts Ruth Asawa’s first solo exhibition in San Francisco. The show examines the Bay Area artist’s wire sculptures and presents her drawings for the first time. Today, an installation of her iconic wire sculptures is always on view in the lobby of the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Tower.

A gallery featuring works from the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas department (1973)de Young museum


May 1973: "Traditional Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas." The Africa, Oceania, and Americas galleries are newly installed with a display that includes music, photographs, and information sheets to introduce the diverse and multivalent cultures and groups represented by the recently established department.

A school group observes conservators (ca. 1984–1985)de Young museum


May 2, 1984–October 30, 1985: "Murals from Mexico: An Exhibition Demonstrating Techniques of Preservation." After an unexpected bequest of mural fragments from Teotihuacan in 1976, a lengthy and complex negotiation between the Fine Arts Museums and officials in Mexico regarding the ownership and care of the fragments concludes in 1981. As part of the agreement, a conservation space, featuring large windows that allow visitors to observe conservators at work, is built expressly for the treatment of the murals. The murals were later exhibited in "Teotihuacan: City of the Gods" (1993) and "Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire" (2017–2018).

Portraits exhibited as part of Fred Wilson’s gallery reinterpretation project (1999)de Young museum


January 16–May 2, 1999: "Fred Wilson: Speaking in Tongues—A Look at the Language of Display." As part of a large-scale reevaluation of the de Young’s collecting and exhibiting practices in preparation for the new de Young building, contemporary artist Fred Wilson creates a series of artistic interventions, reinstallations, and revisions—rewriting display labels, reimagining the role of display cases, and recontextualizing works in the museum’s galleries.

A rendering of the plaza in front of the museum by Walter Hood (ca. 2002–2003)de Young museum


2000–2005: The museum closes on December 31, 2000. A major fundraising campaign to build a new museum, led by Diane B. Wilsey, president of the board of trustees, is already under way. The new de Young, designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, with construction and engineering overseen by the San Francisco firm Fong & Chan Architects, opens to the public on October 15, 2005.

A gallery view, featuring works by Thornton Dial and Ronald Lockett (ca. 2017–2018)de Young museum


June 3, 2017–April 1, 2018: "Revelations: Art from the African American South." This exhibition celebrates the major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation of sixty-two modern and contemporary works of art by self-taught artists from the American South, including works by Thornton Dial, Ralph Griffin, Bessie Harvey, Lonnie Holley, Joe Light, Ronald Lockett, Joe Minter, Jessie T. Pettway, Mary T. Smith, Mose Tolliver, Annie Mae Young, and Purvis Young. 

A Free Saturdays performance by the Oakland hip-hop group Souls of Mischief (2020)de Young museum

The de Young Today

This year, the de Young’s 125th anniversary, is an opportunity to look back at the museum’s rich history and look forward to the future. The past, present, and future of the de Young are unified by the institution’s commitment to preserve and exhibit objects that represent an array of global cultures and historical time periods. As the de Young celebrates its 125 years in Golden Gate Park, it continues to grow, evolve, and find new ways to connect its visitors with art. In the institution’s earliest days, the founder, M. H. de Young, envisioned a museum for the “use, benefit and enjoyment of people forever.” On October 19, 2019, the Fine Arts Museums began to offer free general admission on Saturdays to all Bay Area residents. The Free Saturdays program, generously underwritten by Diane B. Wilsey, chair emerita of the board, makes the Museums more accessible to local communities.

Credits: Story

This timeline is adapted from a lengthier timeline that has been created and is maintained by staff in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Archives.

An extended version of this timeline will be on display at the de Young, and an even more comprehensive iteration will be included in the museum’s forthcoming catalogue, de Young 125, available spring 2021.

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Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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