5:59pm

Thu January 17, 2013
Arts & Culture

History isn’t a turnoff – if it’s properly presented

My first award at school was for history, in fifth grade. I didn’t even know you could win awards for history, but I was pleased to get it. This early inclination has always made me wonder why many people find history to be boring. Personally, I always enjoyed learning about the individual events and the individual people behind those events. Now I realize that much of history is presented more like a math problem than a story – i.e., “When did the Panama Canal open?”

The new administration of the California Historical Society in San Francisco also realizes this disconnect between the fun part and the boring part of history, so they’ve started a guest curator program where they invite non-historians to snoop through their vast collections and see what unpolished treasures they can find from our shared past.

“With Curating California,” says Jessica Hough, managing curator of exhibitions for the California Historical Society, “I think that we’ll begin to see some of the more peculiar or idiosyncratic parts of our collection.”

Those chosen as guest curators may be artists, or chefs or musicians, but historians need not apply.

Lisa Hamilton has curated the first effort in the Curating California program, looking at a century of rural California.

“I was coming to this work as a writer and a photographer,” she says, “but really as a storyteller. So what I was looking for in the archives was not necessarily history, but instead, the story part.”

Her goal was to correct an oft-repeated mistake: that agriculture is the only story in the non-urban majority of this state.

“There are in fact dozens and dozens of histories within rural California,” she says, many more than she could touch on, even with 150 images in the exhibit.

At its root, the Curating California project should make the Society’s collections “more visible to the public,” according to curator Hough. “Our collections are open and available to anyone who wants to explore them.”

The ongoing shows will hint at some of the treasures waiting to be unearthed by anyone with an interest in how we got to be who we are today.

“I See Beauty in This Life; A Photographer Looks at 100 Years of Rural California,” curated by Lisa Hamilton, is on view through March 24, 2013 at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco

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