Me: “Hi. I’m looking for the Los Altos History Museum.”
Los Altos Reference Librarian (LARL): “I haven’t heard of it. Is it near here?”
Me: “According to their website, the address is 51 South San Antonio Road. My GPS brought me to your library parking lot.”
LARL: “Let me look it up online.”
* * *
A few minutes later…
LARL: “Sorry, I can’t find it located anywhere around here.”
Me: “OK, thanks anyways.”
I stepped outside the Los Altos Main Library and walked toward the back of the parking lot, looking for my car. As I neared it, I looked up. Ahead and to my left stood a three-story building with a sign saying, “Los Altos History Museum.”
I’d just learned two things: First, to take my geographic queries somewhere besides the reference desk of the Los Alto Library. Second, that Signage is King.
To be fair to LARL, the museum is neatly camouflaged. It’s probably not even conscious on the part of the people who designed the museum. It’s not like they were inspired by Predator, it’s more that the building is just another example of the Los Altos convention of not pushing oneself forward, that Los Altos people are ordinary folk, who just happen to have very, very, much more money than you do. So the building is hardly noticeable from the parking lot, painted a kind of “what-goes-well-with-asphalt?” color. Better signage would definitely increase the number of visitors.
Which is a shame really. Because inside the building is a beautiful, friendly museum dedicated to the city’s history. It manages to fairly split the difference between being for kids and adults, making both feel comfortable, entertained, and informed.
Inside, the designers did a great job of incorporating the 50’s-60’s rustic interior of Los Altos architecture, so that locals will feel at home. There are well-thought-out nooks where children can explore while staying in sight of, but lower the decibel level for, nearby adults looking at the more formal exhibits.
The bottom floor holds the museum’s archives, including maps, pictures, newspaper and magazine articles, and Los Altos memorabilia. Upstairs you’ll find very well done temporary exhibits along with permanent collections on display. By far my favorite is the train set that runs along a recreation of old downtown Los Altos. I had to knock over two small children to get to the Start button before them, but it was well worth it.
An institution is only as good as the people who staff it. What makes the Los Altos History Museum a great experience is that the staff really cares about the city and its history. I spoke to more than one volunteer who’d lived in Los Altos for decades and could give me a first-hand account of much of that history. In that way, there is still a lot of living oral history to be found at the museum, increasing the value of what’s already available in the display cabinets.
While there, make sure to leave time for the J. Gilbert Smith House next door. Built in 1905, the house has been restored and refurbished to look as it did when new.
And on your way back, maybe one of you can stop in at the library and tell the guy at the reference desk, “If anyone asks where the Los Altos History Museum is, it’s right there.”
If you go