Cars, Cowboys, China & Clay in Danville California
By Mary Charlebois
The monolithic building looks a bit like a clay-red crystal formation sitting at the foot of Mt Diablo.
Elephants and giraffes stand about on the plaza.
Fountains, pools, and streams meander their way down the hillside through the middle of an outdoor mall.
Swans and ducks make the water their home. Green lawns host blankets, picnics, and families. Sitting at the top of the terraced park and mall is the Blackhawk Museum.
Thirty-five miles east of San Francisco, an area known as Tri-Valley is comprised of Danville, Pleasanton, Livermore, and Dublin California. The Blackhawk opened in Danville in 1988 as The Behring Auto Museum.
Kenneth Behring started the institution as a place to house his personal collection of vintage cars. Blackhawk is considered one of the world’s leading car museums.
Kenneth E. Behring, 1928-2019, achieved the American dream. He was a self-made millionaire; many times over. He was a successful real estate developer, pro-sports team owner, philanthropist, father, grandfather, controversial individual, and founder of Blackhawk Museum in Danville.
In the last twenty years of his life he used his sizable fortune to help people everywhere. He provided over one million wheelchairs to the disabled, dug clean water wells in Africa, provided cataract surgeries, and started 40+ natural history museums globally.
In 1991 an expansion added the Art, Science, Culture and History Building.
In partnership with the University of California, the additional facilities host traveling exhibits on a diverse range of subjects.
In 2000 Blackhawk worked with the Smithsonian to bring many of their traveling exhibitions of art, science, and history to Tri-Valley. Today, Blackhawk is comprised of five galleries.
This is a spectacular exhibit. The display stages around forty cars selected from a rotating collection of ninety. In a dark cavernous room, vehicles sit on a black polished surface with dramatic lighting. The magnificently designed exhibition is spotless. Not a spec of dust anywhere. Each vehicle is perfect.
Each car is historically significant, some are one-of-a-kind. Each one will conjure road trip fantasies. There are classics, celebrity cars, movie cars, sports cars, military vehicles, farm trucks, and custom cars. Traveling exhibits and regular car club shows mean each visit will present something new.
Spirit of the Old West Gallery
The exhibit presents the challenges, successes, failures, and way of life for all those that made the US West their home.
The Native American area illustrates the life of Plains Indians. In a beautifully curated exhibit, family life, myths, beliefs, spirituality, dance, ceremony, and leadership are explored.
The American Settlers section is devoted to those that came west in the early 19th century and the culture that developed through the last half of the 1800s.
I spent over an hour in the western movie gallery. As a kid, on Saturdays, I watched the films of cowboys, soldiers and Indians; lawman and outlaw, and damsels in distress.
The Blackhawk has them all. It’s not limited to the big screen, you’ll see the genre at it’s most popular in books, comics, radio, and television. Live and recorded western music gets a nice nod.
Wander through a massive diorama depicting the different stages of western settlement from prehistoric to present day.
Art of Africa Gallery
Sub-Saharan Africa and its art and music are featured in Art of Africa. The sculptural pieces are exquisite, especially the human faces. Everyday tools, ceremonial objects, jewelry weapons, and masks, are adorned to represent folklore, gender, age, tribe, and nature.
Exhilarating music from the people represented is played throughout the gallery. Some of the instruments used are on view. The tree of life carvings shown are mesmerizing. From one piece of wood—often rosewood—an intricately interwoven statue is carved representing links between generations and families.
Natural History Gallery
Located on the second floor, Natural History merges with Spirit of the Old West.
Largely made up of taxidermy specimens of creatures inhabiting the western US. Information panels and murals depict the animal’s surroundings and illuminate the creature’s lives.
Into China Gallery
Handcrafted treasures depicting Chinese dragons, mythology, and history will be exhibited when the exhibit reopens in late spring, 2019.
BLACKHAWK’S MISSION: The mission of the Blackhawk Museum is to stimulate interest and understanding of art, culture, and history. Through exhibitions and programming, we engage, educate, and inspire.
Blackhawk’s Children’s Education & Transportation Fund reimburses Bay Area schools for the cost of transporting K—12 school groups to the museum. Admission is free for students and chaperones.
When You Go
In addition to the permanent galleries, Blackhawk hosts traveling exhibits plus educational and entertainment programs throughout the year. Speakers, artist, road trips, dinners, and car shows take place monthly.
There is a gift shop and a research library with a reading lounge. There are meeting and event spaces available for private events.
The museum is located at the upper east end of Blackhawk Plaza and is accessible to all. Opening hours are 10 AM—5 PM; closed Monday and Tuesday. For directions, special events and tickets, visit the website.
Tri-Valley is in the San Francisco East Bay district. It’s known as the birthplace of California Chardonnay. Abundant agriculture produces some of California’s best wine, beer, spirits, meat, fruit, and veg.
This area is ideal as home base for a Bay Area visit. Use plentiful public transit and make San Francisco and its many attractions a day trip from Tri-Valley. The region is less crowded and budget friendly. To learn more about what to do and where to stay, go to Visit Tri-Valley.
Mary Charlebois is a freelance journalist and photographer. Her home base is on California’s Mendocino Coast. She travels by train, plane, bus, boat, shoe sole, and auto. She digs into the culture, people, and history wherever she goes and isn’t opposed to a little adventure along the way.