A recent survey found that 80 percent of Californians don’t know anything about the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. It’s a stark example of why museum curators, scientists, and environmental planners packed Tuesday afternoon’s session, “Sharing our Stories: Interpreting the Estuary.” In the case of the Delta, asked moderator and climate change consultant Will Travis, “how can we tell compelling stories about something the public can’t find, because they don’t know what to look for, why it’s worth finding, and what it is if they stumble upon it?”
Chuck Striplen, an environmental scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute reminded the audience of the value of adding cultural landscapes, especially those from Native Americans, to public information about the Bay. According to Striplen, to fully understand the Bay as a cultural landscape, we need to build trust and promote collaborative research with local Indian tribes. “Humans have transformed the physical and ecological systems of the Bay throughout its history. Over that time, tribes accumulated tremendous knowledge and experience,” he said. As evidence of this relationship, Striplen cited the shoreline shellmounds that archeologists excavated in the 1900s. The mounds are the result of more than 5,000 years of continuous human habitation on the Bay’s edge. “They contain physical evidence of people’s stories—their food, ceremonies, tools, arts—and they have great potential to help us understand biodiversity, disturbance response, baseline populations, and distributions of hundreds of species,” said Striplen. “There remains much to be learned about the whole human experience of this place from the remnants still in the ground and in the minds of living tribal people. This history still has value in understanding how the world works and how it could work,” he said. The Oakland Museum of California’s interpretive exhibit about the Emeryville Shellmound is a fine example of how to share this knowledge with the public, Striplen said. “The mounds are presented not as stale, musty collections of stone and shell artifacts, but instead focus on the builders—who they were and how they lived and how the families were and are connected to this place,” said Striplen.
The shellmound exhibit is part of the museum’s latest major show, “Above and Below: Stories from the Changing Bay.” The next two speakers discussed how staff from the museum and the San Francisco Estuary Institute worked together to bring Bay history to life. “We wanted to approach this heavily urbanized estuary not as a place where there is no nature, but as a place where people have had many different relationships with nature over time—a place that is the product of both human intervention and engineering and also the natural world and natural processes that are still current and active,” said Louise Pubols, a senior curator of history at the museum of California. Pubols described the origins of the Bay Bridge portion of the show, which includes not just its construction challenges but also the experiences of commuters and bridge workers. CalTrans sponsored the exhibit to help satisfy mitigation responsibilities for the demolition of the bridge’s eastern span as required by state and federal law for the destruction of large landmark structures. The exhibit’s many interactive items include a giant satellite image of the Bay covering the floor (“Everyone looks for their house,” said Publos); pieces of the bridge, cannonballs that have washed up on Angel Island; and a wall covered with jars of contaminated Bay water. “We tried to think about ways to convey information without putting the book on the wall,” said Publos. “No one will stand there and read five paragraphs of ten-point text. You have to catch their eye and trick them to read stuff.”
Museum staff worked closely with the San Francisco Estuary Institute to integrate science into the show. “To the Oakland Museum staff, our attempt at simplifying information must have seemed anything but,” said Ruth Askevold, senior project manager at the Institute. “SFEI often tells its stories in detailed technical reports. We had to learn how to translate our complex reports, charts, and tables into captions suitable for museum displays.” She exhorted scientists to work harder to get the public excited about the Bay through storytelling. “Stories are one of the best ways humans, including scientists, understand, pass down, and preserve our collective knowledge. When they are done well, we walk away with a framework that helps us remember. And because stories usually involve living things, they give us a way to connect to a place and to each other,” she said.
The next speaker, the Delta Protection Commission’s Alex Westhoff, discussed the concept of the “Delta as place” and the need to share these site-specific stories. “The Chinese proverb, ‘When you drink water, consider the fountain,’ rings true when applied to the Delta,” he said. To help ensure that the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s unique cultural and natural resources are protected, he said, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative John Garamendi have proposed designating the Delta a National Heritage Area. “While its importance as a water supplier for California cannot be understated, that is just a portion of the Delta’s story,” said Westhoff. “What about the stories of the Delta as a cultural landscape? The stories of the Miwok Indians who inhabited the riverbanks prior to the Spanish missionaries? Of the Chinese immigrants who hand-built the first set of Delta levees using wheel brigades? Of the fourth-generation farming families who continue to grow crops on the same lands that their great grandparents did?”Mike Moran, a naturalist with the East Bay Regional Parks District, described how the district is making the Delta a real and specific place to people at Big Break Regional Shoreline. The district built a new visitor center at the park as well as the Delta Discovery Experience, a 1,200-square-foot interactive scale map of the Delta. “The bounty that is the Delta is impossible to present, but begs to be examined. That’s what we want people to do—to define their own place, their own Delta,” he said. Moran argues that people need to feel a direct connection with the Delta as a place in order to care about it. “With the Delta, we often hear about its relevance to other places,” he said. “But without a site to experience, a way to make it your own, the situation is sterile. It is all about the experience, the provocation, the place. That leads to an informed citizenry that will steward this place into its future,” he said.
Photographs are another powerful way for people to connect with place. Anthea M. Hartig, the California Historical Society’s executive director, talked about her organization’s “Year of the Bay” collaboration with the website Historypin. The project allows people to upload and geotag photographs. In a little less than a year, she said, approximately 2,500 pieces of original material, mostly photographs, have been added to the site. “The broader hope of the project was that participants would help generate useful, accurate, meaningful metadata for archival sources,” Hartig explained, supplementing historic documents that have with little or no identifying information. She added, “The history of the Bay has long been dominated by relatively hegemonic standard environmental narrative. We hoped that our project would enhance, enrich, and even complicate that narrative. In the end, it comes down to garnering our stories, one beautiful person at a time.”