USF's Museum Blog

Personalizing history: the California Historical Society

by Nicole Meldahl (MA, 2016)

I have a confession to make: I’m a workaholic.

Before you judge me, or feel bad for me, please read on to find out what I do for a living. I’ve worked for ten years as an Archives and Museum Technician for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). In my free time, I volunteer as a board member for the Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP), and we most recently launched a program called OpenSFHistory—an online archive of historical San Francisco images you’ll have to see to believe (look below to see what I mean). I most recently joined the exhibitions team at the Walt Disney Family Museum, and they’ve allowed me one day a week to intern with the Strategic Initiatives team at the California Historical Society (CHS).



View from Twin Peaks looking north showing Tank Hill, Mt. Olympus, Buena Vista Park, and Haight-Ashbury, 1965. Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project /, wnp25.0953.



My role in each of these organizations has varied, but I have always been directly involved in the preservation and promotion of regional history. I’m devoted to historical artifacts because they’re important to understanding our past and, therefore, our present and future, but also because these items once belonged to people who deserve the dignity of remembrance. What I do for a living is personal to me because historical items are inherently personal; all of them were created or used by someone at some time, kept and cherished, and then given to someone at a museum for safekeeping. However, keeping things in perpetuity is not enough. It’s not enough for museums and their employees merely not to forget—we need to participate in active reflection.



Adam Hirschfelder speaking at the Summer of Love 50th Anniversary Cultural Institution Planning Meeting, June 20, 2016



All of the aforementioned organizations care for their collections with committed professionalism, but CHS best internalizes a populist relevancy with its mission to “inspire and empower people to make California’s richly diverse past a meaningful part of their contemporary lives.” The bulk of my internship project is curating content for the Society’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in 2017. Since early June, I’ve gleefully been researching the 1960s to create a calendar of events. I’m watching KPIX interviews with Willie Brown and Dr. Carlton Goodlett after the Hunters Point Riot; reading old issues of The Oracle, an underground newspaper that spoke for San Francisco’s counterculture in the 1960s; and listening to Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead performing at San Francisco State University at the Acid Test Graduation on October 2nd, 1966.



Stack of research materials in the Strategic Initiatives office, CHS


Calendaring historical events directly promotes their relevancy to contemporary life, and some of my research has already appeared publicly in the form of a Facebook post about the Muhammad Ali Festival held in Hunters Point on June 10-11, 1967. This post was made more poignant by Ali’s recent passing, and the fact that his funeral was held on June 10th—a seemingly scripted coincidence. CHS has embraced social media as a marketing tool that enables a broader reach, beyond its core demographic—using it to deliver original content from the Society’s collections, but also to repost articles on current events that either have historic import or parallel movements in history. By showing how historical events reverberate today, the Society both highlights the immediacy of history and personalizes it.



Poster for the Muhammad Ali Festival, June 10-11, 1967. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.


There is a systemic commitment to personalizing history at CHS. When she arrived at the Society from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012, Executive Director Anthea Hartig approached visibility and visitorship with a practical yet ambitious attitude. Hartig told the CHS Board that membership was “all about decimal points. If we have 3,500 members and there are 35 million people in the state, we just need to keep on moving the decimal point.” The Strategic Initiatives team has taken this to heart. Patty Pforte, who orchestrates the Society’s programming, consistently asks “Whose voice is not represented in this dialogue?” in order to more equitably assign interpretation and reach larger audiences. Adam Hirschfelder and Jason Herrington, my co-supervisors, are tireless in their efforts to expand the CHS brand by fostering core partnerships that help more people connect to their past. Relevancy is accomplished, exhibition to exhibition, one Facebook like at a time.



Artwork from The Oracle, 1967. Courtesy of the California Historical Society


The longer I study history and preserve its remnants, the less I believe in coincidences and the more I believe in my synergistic workaholism. There’s a reason I discovered that Muhammad Ali poster when I did, although I can’t claim to understand the unseen forces that led me to that website on that day. We as museum professionals cannot merely be the keepers of objects, we need to be storytellers that give those objects a voice. Other jobs have taught me the language of history, but my internship is teaching me how to amplify my voice in active reflection by making history relevant—one person at a time.


To learn more about University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program, click here.



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