by Katherine Sundra
Before enrolling in the USF Museum Studies program, I worked for three years at the Atlantic City Free Public Library and Historical Museum, an institution near my hometown. Through my work there, I soon learned that being a local doesn’t always equate knowing about a place and its people. Working with Atlantic City’s past gave me a new level of understanding of my city. As I prepared to move west, I felt somewhat reluctant to go from a place where I felt like an expert on the past to one that I knew next to nothing about.
One of my main hopes for my studies at USF was to work with San Francisco history in some manner. My experiences have shown me that there’s no better way to understand a city than by working with the objects from its past. In November, I began an internship with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which has enabled me to do just that. Working at their Archives & Records Center in the Presidio, I’ve inventoried, researched, cataloged and digitized both paper-based and three-dimensional objects, each one telling a unique story about the lands within GGNRA – which include the San Francisco areas of Forts Funston, Mason and Miley, Ocean Beach, the Sutro District, Lands End, and the Presidio; but also extend outside the city’s boundaries to include Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods, the Marin Headlands, and lands in San Mateo County. “The GGNRA’s collection is one of the most complex and diverse in the National Park Service,” states Amanda Williford, Curator. “The Museum Program seeks materials related to the history of the park’s lands, but also captures and documents the current actions of the NPS’s involvement in managing and preserving the areas of the GGNRA.” Having GGNRA’s many resources available has been a fantastic opportunity, fulfilling my wish of learning about the major points of San Francisco history, and expanding my knowledge to include some overlooked aspects of the city’s past as well, such as its rich military history.
Every day at GGNRA involves me with the protection and preservation of the history of these lands. Much of my work involves rehousing and cataloging objects, which includes labeling them, conducting research if our records provide insufficient information, and making custom boxes to properly protect them. I’ve even learned some unexpected practical skills, getting a crash course in sewing by creating garment bags for the military uniform jackets I’ve cataloged.
Waiting for the glue to dry on a box I made for a necktie. Once the box is ready, tissue paper and foam inserts will be added to properly protect the tie.
I’ve also worked with the archival collections at GGNRA, assisting with scanning photographs and organizing their digital counterparts. Cataloging archival collections has allowed me to conduct research on the individuals and organizations associated with them. In January, I even helped to make the collections earthquake-proof by installing netting in one of our storage areas.
Earthquake netting in place to protect collections against sudden movement
By far the greatest crash-course in San Francisco history I could have asked for came this past March, when I helped create GGNRA’s pop-up exhibit for San Francisco History Days. For three days, this expo transformed the Old Mint into a celebration space for everything related to the city’s past. Dozens of local cultural and historic organizations participated, providing information, educational resources, and exhibit content free to the public. Shortly after beginning my internship with GGNRA, I was informed of the upcoming History Days expo, and started thinking about ideas for it. Soon, three other interns and I went from having minimal knowledge of San Francisco history to creating an entire timeline on the last 100 years of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for the expo.
Testing out the placement of objects and captions for the History Days expo on an exhibit case template. Creating a display that comprehensively represents your park is tough when the park includes a bathhouse, an old-growth redwood forest, andone of the most famous federal prisons in the country.
The prospect of creating an exhibit with little guidance and insufficient background knowledge was daunting at the start, but my work for History Days was one of the most rewarding experiences of not only my internship, but my professional museum career so far. Not only did I learn more about San Francisco history than I’d ever expected to, but I discovered just how quickly an exhibit can come together when a deadline is involved! In just three months, our team came up with the concept for the exhibit, conducted extensive research, selected objects for display, designed large-scale timelines, created mounts for the objects, and wrote associated text panels and captions. Watching the public reaction to our work at History Days was incredibly rewarding – even if most of us would have been as receptive to the idea of a nap as we were to patrons’ questions by that point!
Standing with the finished exhibit at History Days.
I obviously can’t call myself an expert on San Francisco history yet, but I’m amazed at everything GGNRA has taught me so far, and the new perspectives I’ve gained not only on the city, but on ways to care for our collective cultural heritage as well. I can’t wait to see where my internship will take me next.
To learn more about the University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program, click here.