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North Bay museums reopen with new mission amid coronavirus, social unrest, economic uncertainty

It’s been said that art reflects life.

If that’s the case, North Bay museums are reinventing how they get their crucial messages and exhibits across to the public while trying to remain relevant in a turbulent world filled with a global pandemic, civil unrest and economic upheaval.

“I think museums have the responsibility to hold up a mirror and ask ‘who we are,’” Museum of Sonoma County Executive Director Jeff Nathanson told the Business Journal.

The Smithsonian-affiliated fine arts museum plans to reopen to the general public after more than four months of sheltering in place on July 9. Its Santa Rosa neighbor, the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, announced its doors will swing open again on July 8.

Like many around the globe, these North Bay institutions in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties have opted to post exhibits online and increase their community outreach outside their walls, instead of standing on the sidelines of history.

While one area museum highlights the ongoing friendships seen in children despite their differences, another reflects on significant moments in history that have become pertinent to current events as powerful as a civil rights movement.

In the heart of the Napa Valley, a foundation for art preservation also demonstrates the complexity of an author known for his literary work. Yet another museum has taken its interactive displays on the streets of Marin County, literally.

“We really are collectors of history, culture and art. This became clear after the wildfires — that history is happening every single day. Museums look at it as we collect and preserve what these stories are,” Nathanson said.

Museums want people to utilize (them) as important resources and a place of solace to gain some perspective. Jeff Nathanson, Museum of Sonoma County

Case in point, the exhibit on display for the museum’s re-opening covers the women’s movement as a century-old wink to civil rights. It’s titled “From Suffrage to #MeToo,” referring to an era spanning the push for the women’s right to vote to a recent generation of women coming forward to denounce sexual harassment and assault.

“Museums want people to utilize (them) as important resources and a place of solace to gain some perspective,” the director said. And just like the turmoil society experiences overall, “each museum has own challenges” to confront and tackle.

Answering to the issue of our times, the museum has planned for an upcoming online exhibition titled 1918 Pandemic that highlights the Spanish flu. The museum collaborated with the Sonoma County and Petaluma libraries on the project.

I think we could all use some good cheer right now. Jean Schulz, Charles M. Schulz Museum

Providing lessons for, learning from our children

One of Sonoma County’s most treasured landmarks, the Schulz museum is aiming to provide as much relevance to its guests, members, visitors and donors as it did when it originally opened in 2002.

Schulz died two years prior, but his legacy lives on.

“In this time of daily unease, we are grateful to be reopening our doors and providing a place for people to have a joyful escape, said Jean Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow and museum board president. “I think we could all use some good cheer right now.”

Current exhibitions include “Lucy! Fussbudget to Feminist” and “Greetings, Charlie Brown!” along with “Girl Power in Peanuts” on view at the end of the month.

Commemorating its 70th year, the Peanuts comic strip showed the world how a group of varying personalities, including those considered misfits, can find a welcoming society.

The popularity has remained steady over the last several years, averaging about 85,000 visitors annually.

What’s new is a showcase of memorabilia and artifacts from Schulz’s life, including his eyeglasses, childhood photos and a football helmet that even showed up in his famous comic strip. An augmentation of other biographical galleries that highlighted parts of his life, the museum received many of the items from old friends and relatives.

Museums goers will be able to peruse artifacts from Schulz’s life such as his eyeglasses. (Courtesy of Charles M. Schulz Museum)
Museums goers will be able to peruse artifacts from Schulz’s life such as his eyeglasses. (Courtesy of Charles M. Schulz Museum)

“He grew up in the Great Depression, so things got passed around,” curator Benjamin Clark said. “Some, like the football helmet, got tossed around until one cousin said: ‘Oh yeah, that was Sparky’s (Schulz’s nickname).’”

The color of history repeats itself

Schulz had shown his own appreciation for history unfolding through the years.

He introduced his first Peanuts character of color — Franklin — upon receiving a letter after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from civil rights supporter Harriet Glickman. A Los Angeles schoolteacher, Glickman wrote to Schulz asking him to integrate “the world of Peanuts,” Jean recounted in last April’s online tribute to her life upon hearing Glickman had died.

“Since the death of Martin Luther King, I’ve been asking myself what I can do to help change those conditions in our society, which led to the assassination and which contribute to the vast sea of misunderstanding, fear, hate and violence,” Glickman’s letter dated April 15, 1968 reads.

Schulz’s cartoon strip is “one of the most adored, well-read and quoted parts of our literate society,” continuing with: “It occurred to me today that the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with a minimum of impact. The gentleness of the kids…even Lucy, is a perfect setting.”

Although Schulz initially and respectively backed away from the request, he came around when a few of Glickman’s Black friends also wrote to the cartoonist.

The museum’s exhibition, “50 Years of Franklin,” chronicled the young Black character’s role in the strip in 2018.

Franklin was introduced as the first Black character in 1968. Original Peanuts comic strip first published on July 31, 1968, introducing the character Franklin. (©Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Santa Rosa, California)
Franklin was introduced as the first Black character in 1968. Original Peanuts comic strip first published on July 31, 1968, introducing the character Franklin. (©Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Santa Rosa, California)

Keeping children's themes relevant

The Children’s Museum of Sonoma County has all but written off 2020 for reopening its location. It closed March 13, and the board of directors decided to keep it closed for the year over a month ago.

To its founder, CEO Collette Michaud, the risk is too great to bring in guests and members during a global pandemic.

“My heart breaks. We’ve been asked to physically distance and will do so, but I didn’t want to be the museum of no,” Michaud lamented. “It became clear to us early on to not have the museum open, but (while) the doors are closed, we’ve been active.”

“We’re using this time to look, listen and learn,” she said, adding her gratitude that the museum has reserves to maintain its survival. “Thankfully, the board had the forethought. We never envisioned this type of rainy day. We want to be here on the other side of this. We plan to be here for the long term.”

In the meantime, the museum is working on new exhibits and a makeover.

A place for science

The Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito has introduced a program “Bring BADM to you” that provides online resources for families to talk about using their household materials to make their own creations.

But they’ve elected to not open so far.

“It would be naïve for us to think we can reopen in the same manner and capacity that we did when we closed,” Communications Manager Joanna Kauffmann said.

The great outdoors

The message on the Luther Burbank Center gardens phone line summarizes the shutdown in a language this indoor-outdoor Santa Rosa museum can relate to. The voice mail states “the weeds have taken over.”

An army of gardening volunteers is hard at work to get the grounds up to par for visitors. Luther Burbank was a botanist, horticulturist and pioneer in agricultural science from Santa Rosa.

“There is space for them to be outdoors in the fresh air,” said Kristen Skold, the center’s office manager. “Fortunately, we’re in a position that we can make this work for us.”

For now, the gift shop and museum tours are off limits as the board reviews a staggered, social-distancing reopening come July.

“The house is very small. There is no practical way to get people in there and to stay safe,” she said.

Even with sections of the grounds reopening, the center has looked in the future and canceled its renowned Holiday Open House once planned for the first week of December.

Most museum directors have long turned to events to attract visitors to places that some citizens take for granted. The loss of such community gatherings has dramatically changed how museums operate and what they feature to display.

A frustrating shutdown

The Jesse Peter Multicultural Museum on the grounds of Santa Rosa Junior College has remained closed as the campus stays in shutdown.

“It’s frustrating,” curator Rachel Minor said, while adding her campus museum has made its online presence more robust and honed her digital skills in the process.

The museum was preparing for an exhibit on the artifacts of war, but the notion of that sobering topic had left the mind of Minor.

“With all the stuff going on,” I completely lost my appetite for it,” she said.

Instead, she expressed enthusiasm for a new exhibit about voices highlighting the college’s diverse community to springboard off current racial relations. Faculty and staff will be featured alongside the student body.

Not immune to troubling, challenging times

The Museum of International Propaganda may be on its last legs since closing March 14. The San Rafael-based institution has worked thus far to get the word out on its offerings by posting videos highlighting exhibit pieces.

Its hope of turning the lights on in July has dimmed.

“Unfortunately, if we don’t get some financial help, we may have to close, depriving Marin County of a unique and famous museum venue,” owner Tom Areton said.

If it finds a way to reopen, a COVID-19-related exhibit complete with hand sanitizer, toilet paper and face masks will be on the agenda, he added.

Even with an online only existence for years and subject near and dear to the North Bay, the California Wine Museum established as a website by Jim McCormick has pledged to shut down. The Petaluma-based museum started the process of breaking up the online property in 2018.

“It’s been tough. I couldn’t sustain it,” he said.

Still, McCormick firmly believes in the relevance of museums as his brick-and-mortar counterparts.

“We can’t lose our culture because history is important,” he said. “It’s certainly helpful to keep relevant.”

The fight to carry on

The Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society plans to open this month on a limited basis. The society manages the Railroad and Ferry Depot Museum, along with other historical sites in Marin County.

Since its closure, Executive Director Patty Flax has worked to enhance the organization’s website to include its historic properties. She’s grateful the supporters appreciate the history of the region and hope for the public’s patience in re-establishing a physical presence.

“Our unique historic places are our touchstones. They have always been here — stable, familiar, grounding and are evidence of our resilience and ability to rally around what we feel is important,” Flax told the Business Journal.

Sometimes reinventing or retooling an industry or site involves a new way of looking at what’s before you.

St. Helena facility shifting its focus

Barrett Dahl, executive director of the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena, is interested in showing the legendary author in a new light.

As it turns out, the author was not only a literary genius who created works of fiction, he also wrote travel pieces and children’s poetry.

Read a child’s poem from the collection: My Shadow.pdf

“We’re trying to create a source and a force for the museum into historical significance,” Dahl said.

Robert Louis Stevenson Museum Executive Director Barrett Dahl wants to show the author in a new light. (Courtesy of the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum)
Robert Louis Stevenson Museum Executive Director Barrett Dahl wants to show the author in a new light. (Courtesy of the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum)

The art history buff cited how it’s not enough to just be an industry known for “storing old stuff.”

“We need to reevaluate our role as a local research aid in a global community,” the scholar said.

It’s also been stated: “Think globally, act locally.”

From our nation’s capital

The conversation among regional museum hosts hasn’t been lost in Washington, D.C.’s viral politics.

“This is not business as usual. One of our strengths has been to bring people together that don’t know each other. All that was called into question with this pandemic,” said Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian while attending a Zoom chat about “Creating the Modern Museum.” It was hosted by the New York Times on June 30.

Granted, the times are not easy to overcome.

According to a study released in May by the International Council of Museums, 90% of the institutions were forced to close their doors during the crisis. Nearly 13% of the more than 85,000 have permanently shut down because of financial difficulties. Some have considered selling their art to survive.

So where do we go from here?

“It just may be time for a transformation. We have to confront reality. We have to be about today and tomorrow as much as we are about the past. There’s a need for these institutions to engage in these issues (of our time),” he said.

Bunch all but promised a moment of reckoning with museums’ role as a teaching device for society to learn from when faced with perplexing issues.

One example, many Americans didn’t know about the Juneteenth celebration, a day Blacks recognize for its departure from slavery.

Bunch cited more than civil unrest as a call to arms for museums to step up and take responsibility for teaching the ill-informed.

“I think our role is to give the public not just what it wants but what it needs. I’d much rather have museums go out there and take a risk and take a stand than to be a place where art goes to die,” he said. “One of their greatest challenges today is how to survive in an economic crisis and a global pandemic.”

The museum scholar called on Americans to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday by “engaging with American history” through whatever means is available.

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