Mining the Museum, Curating California, Pinning Down Public Memory / by George Philip LeBourdais

August 24, 2012


On a balmy spring day in Palo Alto, one of my fellow art historians gloomily contemplated the contemporary usage of the word “curate.” What passes for “curating” today, she lamented? Often a sporadic relationship between a tumblr account and dramatic photography culled from a fashion magazine, designer’s website, or lust-worthy food blog.

My research this summer for the Bill Lane Center in downtown San Francisco at the California Historical Society (CHS) thus arrived like a breath of fresh air, even while I shuffled through low-lit underground vaults poring over old books, paintings, and photographs. In fact, “Curating California,” an ongoing project that Jon Christensen, Executive Director of the Bill Lane Center, conceived in collaboration with Anthea Hartig, the inspiring Director of CHS, demands that we refresh our understanding of the term:

Curate, in its nominative form, means one who cares for the development of souls, reminding us that a central mission of “curators” should be preserving things that help us understand our collective past and might positively affect our growth as social beings. Curating, in that sense, means caring about community.

The archive of the state historical society – indeed, the institution itself – is the product of care. It represents the material gifts of citizens to a common repository. It safeguards the flame of collective memory. Next year, we will rekindle many forgotten memories with a regional celebration: the Year of the Bay, a commemoration of the bay area’s history, geography, and maritime culture, coinciding with America’s Cup sailing races in and around the Golden Gate.

In addition to community programming throughout San Francisco Bay, CHS will mount an exhibition in its galleries at 678 Mission Street that will combine historical objects with interactive media sponsored by an Andrew W. Mellon Grant to the Stanford Spatial and Literary Labs.



Jon and Anthea invited me, as an art historian studying the collective identities formed around land and seascapes, to enter the CHS vaults in order to uncover hidden events and unspoken histories that have transpired in the San Francisco Bay. With essential guidance from the wonderful CHS staff, I explored many classes of objects – general’s golden watches, large paintings by small girls, foreign ships’ logs and ledgers, and architectural plans – in search of themes and threads that would help to weave a richer understanding of our relationship with the Bay.

In the spirit of artist Fred Wilson’s watershed “Mining the Museum” exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society, I was looking for episodes in the environmental history of the area. How did pictures and books express implicit attitudes towards the Bay? Selecting a range of related topics – for example, tourism, industry, transportation, and sport – I compiled an exhibition checklist of objects, like a striking suite of cyanotype photographs of Navy ship launches from Mare Island in 1899, that will appear in the show next spring.

These images will also be incorporated into an online interface via History Pin – a Google Maps program that geo-references historical photographs – allowing the public to review old pictures, comment on times past, and add new images that show how the place they live has changed. Embracing the tech wave that has swept over the region, the project aims to curate California along with the community that cares for it.