To explore public history sites and their digital presence, I visited the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in Danville, California, and its website.
The Museum’s mission is to connect the local community, its main audience, to the history of the Valley. It collects and preserves important artifacts and stories with an eye toward recognizing and representing the growing diversity in the region, “ensuring the story of all residents is collected and preserved for future generations.” I accompanied elementary school children to this museum in 2014, 2017, and 2018; it plays a key educational role in the region’s third-grade Passport through California History Project, and fourth graders regularly visit to learn about indigenous Californians through the First Peoples of California program. On the day I visited, a Wednesday afternoon just before local schools let out, most of the people in the museum were retired people, including the two docents, the curator and historian, and an artist who had made one of the quilts on display.
The Museum offers a familiar interpretive point of view about white settlement and development. Its narrative is reinforced by the exhibit layout. The Museum is housed in one of the original train depots built in 1891. Even before entering, the architecture suggests the importance of industrial development and commerce to the white settlers of the late 19th century. The year 1891 is highlighted as the key moment; the first hallway leading to the main permanent exhibit displays a map of the railroad depots throughout the Valley and offers context on the importance of the San Ramon Branch Line to the region’s development. As visitors move into the permanent exhibit space, they move in a clockwise fashion through the geological period (“Beginnings”), the native period (“They Came First”), the Spanish period, the Ranchos, the Gold Rush, Statehood, railroad and agricultural developments, and 20th-century town and suburban growth. Items on display include Native American artifacts such as arrowheads and the rabbit fur blanket that also appears on the website. Numerous photographs of the railroad depots and technological wonders like a stereoptican viewer point to the march of progress. Each period is clearly and cleanly differentiated from the one before it. The message of linear progress is reinforced with a panoramic mural that traces this same timeline.
The website design, which is easy to navigate, clean, and simple, reinforces the narrative of progress and development under the control of white settlers in the late 19th century as well. The landing page, which explains the mission of the museum and directs traffic to the physical museum, encourages the viewer to scroll down to select “History,” “Collections” (how to donate artifacts), and “Research.” (A convenient menu at the top of each page makes it easy to locate information appropriate for educators, researchers, and visitors.) The “History” tab recounts the history of the railroad and the museum building. The text highlights key figures who aspired to bring the railroad through Danville and who made the restoration of the train depot as a museum possible in the 1990s. A timeline, text, and photographs of the depots and other structures in the early 20th century forward the narrative. A portrait of local land developer John Hartz and his wife invokes the history of European American settlement and contribution. Nine photographs document the technical feat of the depot’s relocation to its current site. All in all, a good deal of text and space is devoted to those who were instrumental in bringing the railroad to the San Ramon Valley.
Although the main “History” page tells a traditional uncritical story of settler colonialism typical among California local history museums, the Museum’s “History Articles” section–which is keyword searchable–features research on the diverse peoples and contested claims to the region. In addition, under the “Education” tab are excellent materials related to the fourth-grade First People’s curriculum, including a video lecture for those who cannot attend in person. “History Articles” includes Dave Frederickson’s work on indigenous Californians, recounts the Spanish battle for the Valley, and discusses the Spanish naming of Mt. Diablo after native captives escaped from Spanish patrols into the thickets. And Beverly Lane’s articles tell the history of women’s suffrage. We learn that in 1911 male “voters in Alamo, Danville and Tassajara opposed women’s suffrage, while San Ramon and Walnut Creek voters supported it.” Unfortunately, the articles section must be navigated through the toolbar. A separate page for the articles featuring the main themes might better direct audiences to these interesting histories. In addition, not all groups are represented here. I searched for Asian Americans, who made up more than 40 percent of the City of San Ramon in 2020, and found no information (though the physical exhibit includes Chinese in the Gold Rush). There is opportunity on the website to highlight less well-known aspects of San Ramon Valley history and the contributions of more recent groups.
The history that the Museum tells in the permanent exhibit ends in the late 20th century. This is addressed somewhat by the temporary exhibits that feature special topics. On the day I visited, a temporary quilt exhibit featuring quilts completed during the Covid19 shutdown was on display. The Museum has a wonderful digital interactive feature to bring the voices of the artists to the museum-goers. Using a QR code, the visitor accesses brief 1-minute narrations. The artists’ expressed their own worries and surprising joys as they quilted through the pandemic shutdown.
The QR Code was a nice interactive feature. The Museum’s other interactive features include a scale that was used to measure grain when the depot served as a feed and grain store during the 1950s and 1960s. Docents regularly let children try it out. And the docent-led programs for school groups include grinding acorns, role-playing indigenous trade interactions, playing native and early settler games, and doing settlers’ chores). Interestingly, the website’s interactive elements are limited to choosing a pathway through the materials and to the “donate”, “join”, and “contact us” buttons. The website designers might consider adding share buttons, especially to the events, to draw visitors. I would also recommend that the Museum begin to make available the artifacts and documents in the collection. While a slide show featuring photographs of the permanent exhibit, no gallery of artifacts and documents appears. I was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum’s vast holdings and think that California history researchers would find much of interest. Although researchers can certainly call, a gallery or finding aid would alert them to the research potential.
Overall, the Museum exhibit and the website are effective in telling the local history of California settlement and development. Short of a drastic reinterpretation of the periodization, which might highlight the overlapping and contested histories of the various groups in the Valley, a 21st-century feature could be added that appropriately addresses the region’s changing demographics. I also saw no recognition that Chevron headquarters was here for twenty years, that Asian Americans (many from India) make up about 40 percent of the region’s residents, or that local residents planned and participated in Black Lives Matter marches in Danville and San Ramon. This more recent past and special topics are sometimes addressed through temporary exhibits at the physical museum, the website provides an opportunity to expand these stories.