By Sabrina Oliveros
For the past half year, I’ve been an intern at the Daniel E. Koshland San Francisco History Center (SFHC), which houses a formidable research and archival collection at the San Francisco Public Library. I’ve been assisting a small curatorial team in finding stories from the center’s collections to build an exhibit on the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. It’s an internship that’s further shown me what curatorial work is and how it can be done—and, more importantly, through one particularly resonant story, why it must be done.
By virtue of the SFHC’s location alone, I see a setting where exhibitions can originate and thrive outside of museums. The SFHC is a hybrid of public library, archive, and gallery. With exhibit spaces open to the public at extended hours, free of charge, the SFHC’s set-up allows it to easily draw in audiences. Yet these audiences can also just as easily go beyond viewing exhibits. They can simply step into the SFHC to learn more about exhibited items and browse featured collections on their own.
The exhibit we’re working on is called Company’s Coming: San Francisco Hosts the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). It tells the story of how San Franciscans prepared for the Fair. It also highlights how they engaged with it, and welcomed the people from across the United States and the world who participated in it. The project is part of the SFHC’s mission to make materials from their holdings publicly available not only for research work, but also through exhibitions and programs.
It is in scouring the SFHC’s collections, of course, that I’ve had most of my learning experiences. To date, I’ve gone through around 20 collections to help identify materials, research nuggets, and narrative threads to support Company’s Coming. Under the guidance of my supervisors, I’ve seen how every inch of news clipping, postcard, photo, artifact, and map can be scrutinized for clues that tie them in a larger context. Moreover, I’ve come to understand how these can be united visually to tell a three-dimensional story.
The work goes beyond research. I’ve also re-housed hundred-year-old letters, ridding them of rusting metal pins and staples. I’ve learned how to navigate the SFHC’s stacks, all the while discovering a whole network of physical and digital research tools. I’m still helping flesh out the social media plan for promoting the exhibit. By the end of my internship, I will have also conducted research for didactics and curated my own piece of the exhibition: a segment on Philippine inclusion and involvement in the Fair.
My supervisors first proposed I look into this topic because it was of personal interest to me, a Filipino. In a way that mirrors how exhibits evolve, it’s turned out that Philippine involvement in the PPIE is of some relevance to Company’s Coming—and of ironic resonance for me.
I’m a Filipino in San Francisco, in a museum studies program. I’m helping the curation of an exhibit on a San Francisco World’s Fair, for which—as perusing the archives has told me—Filipinos campaigned to present exhibits about themselves. No less than Manuel L. Quezon, the eventual President of the Philippine Commonwealth, had this to say about participating in the PPIE:
“I am deeply interested in having my people participate in this world’s fair to be held in your beautiful city in 1915, because the Filipinos are not properly known throughout the world. I think this is a very fine opportunity for them to show… the high state of their culture.”
It’s as if this voice from the past, preserved in a bent and yellowed San Francisco Chronicle clipping, articulates my aspirations for a museum career in the present. Quezon said that on September 6, 1911, but it could very well be what I say on why I came to San Francisco.
It’s easy to imagine you can find so many stories while combing collections for an exhibit. But how often do collections present you with a story that you see as your own? With all that I’ve learned and have yet to learn about museum work at the SFHC, my internship has certainly been substantial. Relearning from its very collections why I want to learn museum work in the first place only makes it more meaningful.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.