Three Quirky Berkeley Museums Engage the Senses of Smell, Sight, and Taste

Three Quirky Berkeley Museums Engage the Senses of Smell, Sight, and Taste

COLLECTIONS | You won’t find the usual collection of archived items in Berkeley’s Aftel Archive, Lacis Museum, and Takara Sake Museum.

Aftel Archive of Curious Scents

Do you have a friend who has spent her life collecting something unusual and gives you the honor of sharing her life’s work on a private tour of her home? That is the experience of joining Mandy Aftel, one of the world’s leading experts on natural fragrances, in her cozy North Berkeley cottage museum, where she displays her meticulously arranged treasures. Visitors are invited to sniff their way through 300 tiny bottles of natural essences from rose, sandalwood, and Tahitian gardenia to the secretions of civet, beaver, and whale.

Aftel is the author of five books on natural scents and a creator of personal perfumes for the stars. She sees scent as key to unlocking our primal drives. Her personal favorite is ambergris (the pungent digestive detritus from a whale) “which,” she said, “is a testament to our fascination with the unusual, the strange, the wondrous.” Don’t wrinkle your nose until you take a whiff. Also on display are antique perfumers’ kits, rare books, engravings, postcards, and other olfactory curiosities.

Tours are one hour on Saturdays. Visitors are allowed to touch and smell the raw botanical materials that become perfume essences and take home with them three sample scents from the bottled fragrances plus an infused bite of chocolate. 1518-1/2 Walnut St. Berkeley, 510-841-2111,

Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles

Walk through Lacis’ front door on Adeline near Ashby, and you may be excused for assuming you are already in its museum. You’ll discover a double rainbow of ribbons and yarn, a bushel of beads, a torrent of tassels, and a mountain of lace. It’s as if you had stumbled onto the secret attic of a dozen world-traveling grandmas. But this is just the warm-up. The proceeds from Lacis’ abundant storefront, in which you are welcome to browse the day away, help support its nonprofit museum.

The museum itself begins in the adjacent room and continues upstairs. Make a reservation and tour its two current exhibitions with owner and guide, Jules Kliot.

The Boteh of Kashmir and Paisley is on display until Feb. 2. Dozens of elegant shawls drape the walls in brilliant reds and oranges and tell the fascinating history of a familiar shape. Boteh (the original name of the curvy teardrop better known as “paisley”) adorned hand-woven Kashmir shawls as early as the 11th century, in an area around the India-Pakistan border. Artisans used ultra-fine wool from the bellies of Himalayan goats and worked for years to make a single shawl.

When the British occupied Kashmir in the late 18th century, they took some magnificent shawls back to England, which started an insatiable demand. The problem was they took so long to make. The craze for these shawls served to spur the invention of automatic, programmable looms in—you guessed it—the city of Paisley, Scotland.

The Fringed Shawl is on display until Oct. 5. The upstairs gallery has an even more striking exhibit, the first of its kind in the United States, showcasing dozens of embroidered silk shawls with hand-knotted fringes, a fashion accessory from the 19th century to the present. Fringed shawls’ popularity started with Flamenco dancing, when the long fringes served to amplify the dancers’ movements. These handmade artwork pieces later became an element of interior decoration, draped over pianos and sofas, before they hit a resurgence of interest in the hippie ’60s.

Kliot is clearly entranced by these incomparable collections, a small part of late wife Kaethe’s lifework. “Handmade textiles have so many stories to tell,” he said. “It feels like we can communicate with artists across the centuries.” 2982 Adeline St., Berkeley, 510-843-7290,

Takara Sake Museum and Tasting Room

You may know that Berkeley is home to the original Peet’s Coffee store on the corner of Vine and Walnut (with a small museum that honors Alfred Peet in its back room). You may not have noticed another museum devoted to a different beverage, tucked away on Addison near University. Takara, one of Japan’s leading producers of sake, established its U.S. branch here in 1982 to marry traditional Japanese techniques with the pure snow melt from the Sierra Nevada and a superior hybrid of California long grain and Japanese short-grain rice grown in the Sacramento Valley.

Nestled beside its massive brewery is Takara’s sake museum, the only one of its kind in the United States. Its two spacious rooms were designed with a Japanese aesthetic, featuring an elegant wood structure inspired by ancient Shinto shrines. The blue glass tiles on the floor suggest a stylized rice paddy. The name “Takara” means “treasure from the rice paddy.” All materials used were recycled (reclaimed timber and recycled bottles in the tiles), reflecting a deep respect for nature.

Pause first to view a short film that describes Japan’s traditional sake-making. You will witness the reverence for rice, the multistep fermentation and learn that classic sake has only four ingredients: water, rice, yeast, and koji spores.

The one-room museum houses an array of rare, late-19th century wooden sake production tools that illuminate historical sake-making. Senior advisor Izumi Motai describes some of the rakes and ladles as similar to those used in other alcoholic beverage production. “Sake is a cousin to micro-beer and wine, which explains the interest in our museum from other home brewers,” he said. “And sake is also similarly food oriented.”

Don’t leave without sipping a flight of distinctive sakes in the adjacent tasting room. No food is available, but without a spicy tuna roll to commandeer your palate, the variety of distinctive flavor profiles, from “velvety, floral, with mouth-filling fruit” to “nutty, earthy, complex” can really be appreciated. Takara’s “organic sake” is an only-in-Berkeley treat. 708 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-540-8250,

Faces of the East Bay