by Morgan Schlesinger, President, Museum Studies Graduate Association
The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has been the talk of the town in the museum community for the past few years. Through her visionary strategies for engaging with the community, Executive Director Nina Simon has taken the struggling local museum and transformed it into a flashpoint for museums in the 21st century. On April 9th, I drove with my classmates Else Trygstad-Burke, Hannah Somerville, and Sarah Mackey down to Santa Cruz to both tour the museum and learn about its mission through a Bay Area Emerging Museum Professionals event.
Featured speakers included Marla Novo, the MAH Curator of Collections, Sandino Gomez, Community Program Manager, and of course, Nina Simon.
The event started off with a brief tour of the museum’s archives, led by Marla Novo. Housing records dating all the way back to Santa Cruz founding in 1876, the collection contains everything from topographical maps to diaries of family lines across multiple generations. The latter has been carefully transcribed by Novo and a team of enthusiastic volunteers over the past few years has the work to make the archives available online. The MAH has an “open door” policy with their archives and encourages visitors to wander in on a whim, see how the archiving process works, and even get involved themselves. Hannah was especially taken with this part of the tour and was impressed by how this policy created a sense of museum ownership for members of the Santa Cruz community.
Else Trygstad-Burke alongside legendary surfer Bill Grace
Following this insider’s look at the museum’s archives, we explored the gallery spaces. Being a locally focused museum, the MAH presents Santa Cruz’s illustrious history and culture. These touchstones include the light-hearted origins of surfing, skateboarding, and Santa Cruz’s fun-loving culture as well as more serious issues such as the city’s relationship to Japanese Internment or Mexican-American workers’ rights. Else was impressed by how this exhibit managed to incorporate such a wide variety of historical narratives without sacrificing educational content. Because the MAH weaves these historical threads into Santa Cruz’s history as a whole, the museum contributes to the community’s sense of ownership of the museum.
We also received an exclusive tour of the traveling exhibit the MAH is currently hosting: The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection. This exhibit incorporated historical documents regarding the history of slavery in America with African-American art movements. Temesgen Fukadu and Simba Kenyatta, the tour guides for this exhibit, were knowledgeable and engaging; they personalized the tour by relating their own experiences to the surrounding artifacts and fielding questions in a thoughtful and open dialogue on race
Temesgen Fukadu tours BAEMP members through MAH’s hosted exhibition: the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection.
Spaced throughout these exhibits were examples of the MAH’s unique take on community engagement. Whether it be asking visitors how Santa Cruz should stay, or asking what historically significant events are taking place in Santa Cruz County today, the MAH constantly reinforces the idea that it is a museum built for the community that supports it.
Hearing from Sandino and Nina further emphasized the communal mission of the MAH. Sandino described how the museum’s events are entirely supported by the community; community members often contribute directly to participating in events and donate their time, equipment, and expertise to make each event a success. Nina explained that since she took over as Executive Director, museum attendance has increased every year. Additionally, attendance demographics have shifted as a majority of attendees are local residents instead of tourists.
Although this shift in priorities has not been entirely seamless as older museum members feel alienated by the changes, Nina has made the MAH wildly successful. The museum is a place for everyone; Nina has worked hard to make this belief more than a business platitude. These goals are exemplified by the museum’s events, exhibits, and encouragement for visitor feedback. All these measures foster an environment that allows people from diverse backgrounds to find common ground: a process Nina calls “bridging.” Both Sarah and I enjoyed hearing Nina’s philosophy on museums. Her goal to transition museums from information authorities to content collaborators is a major step forward in how museums support their communities.
True to this steadfast belief in the importance of bridging, Nina invited everyone out to a local bar upon concluding her presentation. There, we relaxed, had a drink, and continued to discuss with her museums as well as more casual business: weather, beer, cycling, and the Golden State Warriors.
Visiting the Santa Cruz MAH was an immensely rewarding experience and one that I would recommend to anyone looking for a fresh take on museums. Museums are too often dismissed as stodgy and uninviting; the MAH is contemporary proof that museums have the capacity to teach, engage, and entertain.
MSGA is proud to host Nina Simon at the University of San Francisco on October 20th to publicly lecture about the MAH, museums, and her new book: The Art of Relevance. Stay tuned for more details in the fall.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.