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Blog posts by Marla

Artifact of the Month: Opening the Lid on Memories–Brick from the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake

Posted October 17, 2013

Like most people, I enjoy celebrating birthdays and all sorts of anniversaries of happy events. I dread remembering the sad stuff. I know you’re supposed to acknowledge them so you’re grateful for the good times, but sometimes I block out bad memories–store them in a box and close the lid.

Brick salvaged in dowtown Santa Cruz, after the Loma Prieta Earthquake

Brick salvaged in dowtown Santa Cruz, after the Loma Prieta Earthquake

A couple of weeks ago my fabulous collections volunteers (aka “The White Glove Crew”) and I decided to work on a new cataloging project. I chose a box in the collection room labeled “Communication, Documentary Artifact” (nomenclature for museum cataloging is awesome). Inside we found a brick salvaged from a building in downtown Santa Cruz after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. It looks like an ordinary brick, but of course its history is extraordinary.

The very next day, a woman named Karen visited the Museum. She donated the earthquake brick years ago, and she came to bring me another one. I told her how I had just completed a new inventory of the artifact the day before. The timing was almost spooky.

Karen smiled and said, “Well these things happen; when you acknowledge it, it makes everything better.” She went on to tell me that reclaiming these bricks had been a labor of love. The Sunflower House (once on California and Rigg Streets) had cleaned the bricks. Then volunteers with Parks and Rec attached the commemorative plaques. Karen reminded me that even in challenging times, a community can come together and that’s worth remembering.

I was just out of college in 1989, and was in downtown Santa Cruz on October 17th.  When I tell me earthquake story (many of us have them), I like to joke and say I was shopping for earrings when the quake hit. I still have my gold hoops, although I don’t wear them anymore.

That story is better to remember than envisioning people lying down on the sidewalk, some clutching their chests. I choose to block out the screams and the looks of panic on faces I immediately saw after the shaking stopped. Or forget the sight of cars with smashed hoods damaged from falling building bricks (these bricks?). Or the sound of broken glass I stepped on as I made my way down Pacific Avenue.

But sometimes you have to open the lid on bad memories to remember the good ones. I recall how I got home that night. I was about to catch a ride from one of my friends. As we made our way through the dust and rubble, my mom turned a corner, waving me over. Somehow she had managed to get downtown and find me moments before I left. These things happen.

A few weeks ago, I was assembling my daughter’s disaster survival kit for school. I packed a mini flashlight, a garbage bag to make a rain poncho, and some packages of tuna and applesauce because they’re less perishable food.

My daughter said, “I hate that stuff. What if there’s really an earthquake and I have to eat this?” I told her “Don’t worry, just when you open the lid of your applesauce container, I will be there to take you home.” Because that could actually happen; it had before.

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Artifact of the Month: Music Teachers and Lessons in Letters–Vera at the Piano

Posted September 16, 2013

Vera at the Piano (detail)

Vera at the Piano (detail)

When I was a kid, there was a huge piano in our house. I took lessons for many years, liked to practice, and have 3 songs in my repertoire. My childhood piano currently resides in my home (which incidentally was the residence of a piano teacher in the 1930s), but it remains mostly dormant. It is a lovely receptacle for photographs, vases, report cards, and other miscellaneous remnants of our lives.

A few years ago I received a phone call from a man in San Jose. He owned a painting of a Santa Cruz piano teacher and wanted to donate it to the MAH. I wondered if it was the same piano teacher that had once lived in my home, the one I secretly hoped would haunt my house in the middle of the night. I’ve been waiting to wake up to the melodies of a lone pianist. But that hasn’t happened, and the painting isn’t of my phantom musician.

Generations of Santa Cruzans may remember taking piano lessons from Vera McKenna Clayton. Born in Oakland in 1871, Vera moved to Santa Cruz in the early 1920s with her husband, Donald. Their Broadway St. home must have been a music lover’s dream with a parlor equipped with two grand pianos and an organ in the living room.

An accomplished musician and composer, Vera is credited to writing “Floating Down the San Lorenzo River,” published by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce for the 1928 Santa Cruz Water Pageant. She also penned the 160th birthday song for the City of Santa Cruz in 1929. Vera died in 1978.

Sybil Hunnington, Vera at the Piano, pastel on paper

Sybil Hunington, Vera at the Piano, pastel on paper

In the painting, Vera at the Piano (by artist Sybil Hunington) we encounter a woman in a classic three quarter portrait. It’s a very French inspired, Rococo-esque composition of light and lyrical pastel hues. Vera is sweetly smiling, turning a page of music at the moment we stumble upon her practicing in the parlor. She’s looking at us perhaps about to say: “Oh this old thing? Did you like it? I just composed it this morning.”

I met William J. Adams, Jr. in 2004 when he came to the MAH to donate the painting. Mr. Adams is a graduate of Chaminade High School (Class of 1933). He married his childhood sweetheart, Maryjane, at Holy Cross Church in 1939. Maryjane’s piano teacher, Vera McKenna Clayton, played the organ at the ceremony. Mr. Adams gave me some biographical information about his wife and himself, and I thanked him for the painting.

I followed up with a formal letter of gratitude (standard practice), and so began my correspondence with Mr. Adams. Through the years, I have received updated information for the donor files. I look forward to these letters and enjoy writing back (never email), thanking him for the additional info, notifying him when the painting was on display, and sending my condolences when Maryjane passed away.

Upon receiving a letter this past summer, I wrote to thank him as usual. Instead of a reply from Mr. Adams, his daughter-in-law called to tell me that 96 year old Bill can’t drive to Santa Cruz anymore. He no longer writes much, yet Mr. Adams wanted to make sure my files were updated. It was important to him—and to me. As I write this, I have learned that Bill passed away last week. The file is complete.

I love that the story of an artifact doesn’t have to end with one account, but it can continue, overlap with another, and along the way connect others to it.  And so I add my story to Vera at the Piano. I didn’t take lessons from her and she didn’t live in my house, but I wouldn’t mind hearing Vera play my piano, preferably in the middle of the night.


Artifact of the Month: Hacking Peter Zecher’s Untitled: Totem

Posted August 13, 2013

Peter Zecher's Untitled: Totem on display in "Hack the Museum"

Peter Zecher’s Untitled: Totem on display in “Hack the Museum”

My parents never sent me to summer camp when I was a kid, and I don’t send my kids. It never seemed interesting or fun to me. Maybe I was afraid of not being liked, of being unpopular.

Last month the MAH hosted “You Can’t Do That in Museums,” where museum professionals, artists, and designers had 2.5 days to make exhibits out of artifacts from the MAH’s permanent collection.

This camp was an experimental approach to developing labels, interactive elements, and interpretative experiences to enhance engagement with museum collections. The experience was crazy, creative, and exhilarating. I was in charge of selecting the artifacts that would be “hacked.”

I picked some old favorites and some I thought would be interesting to interpret. I regard many of the artifacts in the MAH collection as my “children” (gosh, don’t all collections management people do?).

I took the selection process personally. Would the campers like my choices? Would they find merit in the least favorite, forgotten ones?

One group worked with Peter Zecher’s Untitled: Totem, created in 1977. Some campers joked it looked like a magazine rack. I felt like the sculpture was being bullied at summer camp.

The art historian in me thought this was blasphemous talk, but I secretly agreed with them. In the collection room stored safely in a corner, Untitled: Totem had being ignored for years.

Untitled: Totem is a free standing construction of knotty pine and enamel. California artist Peter Zecher (1945-1996) was known for his geometric inspired work.

This undulating sculpture echoes the architectural lines of a high rise hotel in a cityscape. You could even make the argument that its kinetic design is reminiscent of (stay with me) Bernini’s baroque masterpiece, David, right before the young man flings a rock at Goliath. Or maybe it looks like a wine rack (ouch).

The museum campers researched the artist and looked at the MAH’s archival information about the sculpture. They found the correspondence between the artist and Museum staff. Zecher explained the process in which he worked, how he came about donating the sculpture, and his delight in doing so.

The display of Untitled: Totem is intriguing, brilliant, and a little startling. The campers were inspired by the “lost” status of the sculpture, and placed it in front of an open crate, half swathed in bubble wrap (like a partially clothed Roman statue? Okay, I’ll stop.).

The exhibition brings up questions about artifacts and their signifance. When and how does art fall out of favor? Much like historical objects, often its significance is attached to its back story and in its role as documentation of a movement, of a moment in time.

After the exhibition ends, when all the other artifacts return to the collection room, I would like to keep Peter Zecher’s Untitled: Totem on display longer. I think it deserves that.

Summer camp isn’t so bad. Even the unpopular kid/sculpture can make new friends.

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Attention Local Researchers–Apply for the Dolkas Award Grant

Posted August 6, 2013

The Dolkas Award was established in honor of James Dolkas, the founder and original president of the History Forum. Members of the History Forum and the Sesnon Foundation set up the James Dolkas Memorial Fund through the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County and offer the grant annually to a worthy project that will advance community awareness about regional history.

Each proposal should meet and address one or more of the following criteria:

  • What is the direct and enduring benefit to the Santa Cruz /Monterey Bay community?
  • How is the proposal a local community partnership of people and resources?
  • Does this project have any new audiences or participants, technologies, or ideas?

To apply, please complete the 2013 Grant Application. Applicants may attach additional pages as needed; the narrative should not exceed five hundred words. Applications are due by October 1, 2013. The application includes grant guidelines for preparing application budget, narrative, and outcome descriptions.