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Little Museums, Big Missions | Learn about your community's everyday past with a trip to one of these East Bay gems. | By Mike Rosen-Molina

Most Californians are familiar with the big events that shaped the state's history--like the Gold Rush and the Bear Flag Revolt--and know names like Sutter and Vallejo from history books. But it's a different story when it comes to the hows and whys of not states and countries, but cities and neighborhoods. All around the East Bay, dozens of local and county museums exist to preserve the history that's too small to make it into textbooks but too important to forget.

The Alameda Museum, housed snugly in the city's old Masonic Temple and Lodge, is one such museum. At first, its eclectic collection of artifacts doesn't look like it belongs in a museum--there's nothing here associated with the grand events of history; nothing that was once touched by George Washington or Julius Caesar. But each one has an important connection to the city, revealing some facet of a past long forgotten: a battered metal watering can, made in one of Alameda's first galvanizing factories; an upright piano once owned by comedienne Phyllis Diller, a former Alameda resident; a giant brass tub once used to boil molasses to make candy at Neptune Beach, Alameda's once-famous, long-defunct amusement park.

"The Oakland Museum wouldn't have space for us," said curator George Gunn, who has overseen the museum's collection since 1971. "They'd be overwhelmed. We're very important because we're the only museum dedicated to the city."

"Local museums are smaller and friendlier," Judith Lynch, Alameda Museum president, said. "It's easier to come in and find the answers to your questions about the town."

Local museums serve an important need, helping to connect residents to the past of their towns and cities. While the Smithsonian can help a visitor learn her place in the country, and the Oakland Museum of California can help her understand her state, local museums are the destination for people looking to learn about their county, their city, or even their own street.

"Most people want to see themselves in a museum exhibit. They want to see their stories represented," said A.T. Stephens, executive director of the Downtown Museum in Hayward. The museum should have a grand reopening soon, after being closed for over a year while it moved to larger quarters in a former department store building on Foothill Boulevard. "Local museums are an important mechanism to give people an anchor. We don't have an encyclopedic collection in the same way that the Smithsonian does. Instead, we have a narrow focus on just the local area, but it allows people to focus deeply. People come to the local museum when they want to understand their home."


Historians sometimes differentiate between "big history" and "little history." "Big history" is the history you learn in school--the names of kings and presidents, the significant battles of great wars. But "little history," the mundane details of daily life for ordinary people, has its place, too. Museums in Martinez and Walnut Creek, for example, have ongoing projects to record oral histories of local people. Most are not chosen because they're important historical figures in their own right or because they had some brush with something significant. Rather, they're ordinary people--a Russian immigrant, senior citizens in their 80s and 90s, veterans of World War II, the Vietnam conflict, and the Korean war--reminiscing about what the cities were like in years past.

"Local museums don't deal with earth-shaking events or the rise and fall of empires, but help ground people in the place that they've chosen to live," Dan Dunn, director of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, said. "People get a sense of their environment. People can look at the street names in their own town and know where they come from, who those streets were named for. That can give your daily experience a little more meaning."

People visit local museums for a variety of reasons--curious tourists, high school students doing research for school papers--but Dunn found that the majority are people looking for a personal connection to history. This year, the Museum of the San Ramon Valley held an exhibit to remember the 50th anniversary of the crash of Pacific Air Lines Flight 773, which plowed into the San Ramon hills in 1964 after a passenger shot the pilots in a murder/suicide.

"We had family members of the crash victims coming in all the way from Reno," said Dunn. "People made a pilgrimage."

But the connections aren't always tragic. Dunn finds that sometimes people come in just to remind themselves a little about the way things used to be. In Martinez, the Martinez Museum welcomes a steady stream of visitors coming to pore through the old yearbooks for the city's only high school, Alhambra High.

"People come in quite often wanting to see their parents' and grandparents' yearbooks," Andrea Blachman, director of the Martinez Museum, said. "Or parents want to show them to their kids, to prove they were young once, too. Alhambra has always been the only high school in Martinez, and I've never been anywhere where people are more loyal to their high school. I'll hear visitors in their 80s talking about a high school football game they watched as students, and it will sound like something they just saw last week."

In Alameda, the museum's back room houses all the guts that aren't ready for display--an old camera on a tripod, chairs under plastic tarps, and shelves and shelves of old books. This is where Gunn does much of his research, going through reams of 19th-century property records, high school yearbooks, and census logs to piece together a fuller picture of the city's past. It's a tough slog, but one of the most important functions of a local museum. According to Dan Dunn, a large number of local museum visitors come seeking specific information. They might be new arrivals who've just bought a house in the neighborhood and want to know more about its history, or they might be longtime residents curious to know about their earliest San Ramon ancestors.

In Livermore, the Livermore Carnegie Museum frequently entertains questions from people who've been in town for a year or two. "That's when they've finally gotten settled in and got the schools worked out, and now they want to know more about the town that they've chosen to live in," said Jeff Kaskey, president of the Livermore Heritage Guild. "They wonder: How did it get to be what it is? What's the story with these old buildings? What about that monument? They're curious, but there aren't a lot of high-end resources to research that sort of thing, so they might hear a few rumors from their neighbors. But when they want to know what the story really is, they come here."

Some new homebuyers--in fact, quite a few--want to know if there's any record of their homes being haunted by ghosts. "Typically I tell them if they believe there is a ghost in their house, then, yes, there's a ghost in your house," joked Kaskey.

Most local museums maintain extensive archives of assessors' records and geological surveys that help show what the local landscape looked like back in the early days of settlement, making it possible to trace the construction of the city. Often, local museums are shoestring operations that survive on donations and historical society membership dues; annual budgets for city museums can range from as low as $40,000 to as high as $140,000. Some, like the Alameda Museum, receive some financial support from the city for doubling as the city archives. Nearly all rely heavily on volunteers--people who donate their own time and expertise. The Downtown Museum in Hayward operates with a staff of just nine, but it has more than 60 volunteers who help keep the center and historical sites running. The Martinez Museum is all volunteers.

The Martinez Historical Society operates the Martinez Museum and also performs the community functions like downtown walking tours and scholarships for high school students planning to study history in college, on a budget of less than $50,000 per year, said Martinez Historical Society President John D. Curtis.

"A little money goes a long way when there are a lot of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers working in a nonprofit organization," he said.


One of the most persistent problems for a local museum is keeping the collection from growing beyond reason. In years past, Gunn noted that local museums sometimes became de facto community junk piles, when city residents would donate any old bric-a-brac regardless of historical significance

"We used to be thought of as 'ye old curio shop'," said Gunn, who has worked hard to weed out irrelevant items from the museum's collection. "When I first started here, people would empty out their attics and bring it here, and we didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. But the problem is that many of those donations came with the unwritten contingency that we'd display them."

Gunn said that maintaining a local museum requires a ruthless dedication to the collections policy. While museums thrive on the generosity of donors, Gunn found that such generosity can also be a double-edged sword since many donations come with the unspoken caveat that the museum will always have them displayed. Under the mantra "specialize or die," Gunn began the museum's policy of refusing unwanted donations. Today, the only artifacts on display in the museum are those with definite ties to the city's history--an antique globe that once resided in the city's former Carnegie library, a faded and cracked wooden toboggan from the Neptune Beach roller coaster, a Kewpie doll that a visiting sailor won in a midway game at that same park.

Under glass, there's what looks like a toy boat--a white wooden model of the Sacramento Southern Pacific, the old ferry that carried commuters across the bay to San Francisco. After the Bay Bridge finished construction in 1936, ferry service was gradually phased out. In 1939, the Alameda Commuter's Club, a group of men who commuted every day to the city, marked their final ferry ride by releasing the model into the open waters. The men even passed out paper "crying handkerchiefs," just in case anyone was overcome by emotion during the ceremony. The model boat was intended to sink, a symbolic reminder of the end of the ferry era, but the men evidently had built it too well. It was later recovered, still floating, by the Coast Guard and returned to the club. Gunn points out the discolored stains along the little boat's hull where the salt water oxidized the metal stripping.

Sometimes, he's found, people are happy to let the museum sell off their donations to help raise operating funds. Donated items with no connection to the city--like dog-eared pulp novels and VHS cassette tapes--are sold in the museum shop and the proceeds used to keep the museum running. In addition to a monthly stipend of $3,500 from the city, the museum still has to raise an additional $2,000 every month to cover expenses like rent, insurance, utilities, and docent training. Gift shop sales account for part of that, along with membership dues, lecture sponsorships, admissions, art gallery rentals, and donations.

Dedicated museum techs like Gunn have done much to rehabilitate the image of local museums, but new technology--which makes it easier for museums to conduct research on a budget--has also helped. Google Groups has digitized many old newspapers, making them easy to search, and software like Taskperfect makes it easy for even techno-phobic volunteers to catalog artifact collections. And just keeping track of what you've got on the shelves is the first step away from junk bin chaos and toward a decent museum.

"For a long time, local museums were considered a place where retirees could putter around with hobby projects," said Jeff Kaskey. "Professional historians didn't take them seriously. Computers and the Internet have democratized our ability to share history."

One corner of the Alameda Museum is a little room, filled with dolls--antique dolls with porcelain heads, smiling ragdolls, dolls both homemade and store-bought. Each one once belonged to an Alameda child; some of their former owners are still living in the city, but wanted to donate their old playmates for future generations to see.

"That's part of what we're trying to tell people," said Gunn, who has championed the museum's efforts to get more historical artifacts from Alameda's 20th-century history. "History can be anything. It doesn't have to be ancient. It can be what happened in your own lifetime."

Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly. He majored in medieval German history at UCLA and is the author of the comic book adaptation of the early modern witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum.


Hotbeds of History

Where to look into the past.

The Alameda Museum. 2324 Alameda Ave., Alameda, 510-521-1233; Wed.-Sun. 1:30-4pm and Sat. 11 a.m.-4p.m.;

Antioch Historical Society Museum. 1500 W. Fourth St., Antioch, 925-757-1326; Wed. and Sat.1-4 p.m.;

Berkeley History Center. 1921 Center St., Berkeley; Thu.-Sat. 1-4 p.m.;

The Carnegie Museum in Livermore. 2155 Third St., Livermore, 925-449-9927; Wed.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.;

Clayton Historical Society and Museum. 6101 Main St., Clayton, 925-672-0240; Wed. and Sun. 2-4 p.m.;

Downtown Museum. 22380 Foothill Blvd., Hayward, 510-581-0223; opening soon, hours TBA;

Dublin Heritage Center. 6600 Donlon Way, Dublin. 925-452-2100. Tue. 6-9 p.m., Wed.-Sun. 1-4 p.m.;

Museum of Local History. 190 Anza St., Fremont. 510-623-7907. Wed. and Fri. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.;

Museum on Main. 603 Main St., Pleasanton. 925-462-2766. Tue.-Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m.;

Martinez Museum. 1005 Escobar St., Martinez. 925-228-8160. Tue. and Thu. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., first four Sundays 1-4 p.m.;

Richmond Museum of History. 400 Nevin Ave., Richmond. 510-235-7387. Wed.-Sun. 1-4 p.m.;

San Leandro History Museum & Art Gallery. 320 W. Estudillo Ave., San Leandro. 510-577-3990. Thu. and Fri. 1-5 p.m. First Sat. of each month 11 a.m.-3 p.m.;

Museum of San Ramon Valley. 205 Railroad Ave., Danville.925-837-3750. Tue.-Fri. 1-4 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Sun. 12-3 p.m.;

Shadelands Ranch Museum. 2660 Ygnacio Valley Road, Walnut Creek. 925-935-7871. Tours are offered on Wed. and Sun. between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., mid-February through mid-November; WalnutCreekHistory.Info/Visit.php.

Union City Historical Museum. 3841 Smith St, Union City. 510-378-6376. Thu.-Sat. 10a.m.-4 p.m.;



Shave and a haircut (top): George Gunn, curator of the Alameda Museum, in the 1930s barbershop display with furnishings from Frank's Barber Shop, which was located at 2055 Lincoln Ave. in Alameda. Now serving (bottom): Gunn, in the 1900 Alameda kitchen display with furnishings from Alameda. Photo by Lori Eanes.