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Historic Battle

[whitespace] David Crosson
Christopher Gardner

Hysterical Preservation: New historical museum director David Crosson is under fire for seeking to change the focus and locations of the museum, making the Kelley Park site the ancillary outdoor venue and putting the main exhibits in a new facility downtown.

New SJ museum director raises the ire of valley history buffs who think he's trying to engineer the past to fit the politically correct messages of the day

By Michael Learmonth

IN THE CALIFORNIA ROOM on the top floor of the Martin Luther King Library, April Halberstadt and Charlene Duvall sit across from one another and look deep into San Jose's past. Between them are turn-of-the-century maps and sketches of the city grid on blank sheets of paper. They're plotting the course of the planned Vasona Light Rail Line from downtown San Jose to Campbell against every bit of history that lies in its path. Halberstadt explains the importance of unearthing as much history as possible before the digging begins.

"When the bulldozers come and dig things up, they're alerted to the presence of Indian bones, an adobe, plumbing from a farmhouse, or a cultural structure," she explains. In their research, Duvall and Halberstadt have found that Los Gatos Creek took a very different path at the turn of the century, after a landowner dug a trench at the back of his property and made Dry Creek Road as dry as it is today.

They are also taking pains to ensure that such a structure as the antique shop on the corner of San Carlos and McEvoy--now named Ancora, Ancora--is preserved. The building is one of the best-preserved turn-of-the-century brothels anywhere in America, one of the last relics of a red-light district that served railroad and cannery workers.

Halberstadt and Duvall are two of about a dozen people doing primary research on the history of San Jose. Tomorrow, they will continue their work at the other repository of San Jose's history: the archives at Kelley Park. The two are part of a clique of hobbyists and scholars whose names show up occasionally on locally published history books and on historical reports on file with the city clerk. Halberstadt has collaborated with her husband, Hans, on books about fire engines and the American family farm. Duvall's sister is Glory Anne Laffey, who is a big name in San Jose history circles, known for her research on historic buildings.

It's a small, familiar and somewhat incestuous group. So when they were invited in October to give their input at a brown bag lunch on the future of the archives, put on by the History Museums of San Jose, they were surprised that the new director, David Crosson, had also invited a professional mediator to attend.

"A mediator for a bunch of people who know each other?" Halberstadt asks, shooting Duvall a conspiratorial smile. "That's not the San Jose way."

A rookie mistake, perhaps, for the museum's new director, but not something anyone in attendance that day was about to let slide. Crosson had relocated from Chicago to become president and CEO of the museum just a year before. But perhaps it was also a recognition that not everything about his first year had gone smoothly.

"Maybe they thought they were coming into a hostile situation," Halberstadt muses. "I don't know why. We're all over 50."

DAVID CROSSON WAS HIRED a little over a year ago to guide the history museum through a transition from a skeletal organization that was city-run and city-funded and leaned heavily on volunteers and local historians into a model regional museum still partially funded for the next five years with $5 million from the city of San Jose but administered by a nonprofit.

When he arrived, he found a museum comprising three separate facilities--Kelley Park and downtown's Peralta Adobe and Fallon House--with no permanent archive storage, hardly any budget and only a tiny room on the first floor of the Pacific Hotel replica in which to host exhibits.

Crosson, plucked from his job in Chicago by a professional search firm, sees his role as bringing the historical museum to the level of the Redevelopment Agency-assisted San Jose Museum of Art and the Tech Museum of Innovation.

For years, the history museum was the poor stepchild, an underfunded and underperforming institution kept up over the years by the hard work and dedication of longtime volunteers and historians.

Shortly after his arrival, Crosson began fundraising and proposed that the museum seek a facility downtown to house museum offices, the archives and exhibit space.

"I suspect Crosson and his staff took a look at the art museum and saw how much the Redevelopment Agency has put into that over the years and how it's become spectacular," surmises prominent local historian Jack Douglas. "I can't blame them for that."

Crosson has made a career out of starting or reviving museums. He directed a museum in Fort Wayne, Ind., after leaving a tenured teaching position at the University of Wyoming at age 28. Later in his career, he was the founding director of the children's museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., and served as director of the Prairie Avenue House Museum in Chicago.

"I've made a career out of administering triage to existing organizations or starting new ones," he says.

When Crosson arrived in San Jose, he quickly started instituting changes, stepping on the toes of the volunteers who had invested time and money over decades running the place. When the city employees of the museum were let go, they were replaced by outsiders, commuters from San Francisco and Oakland who didn't yet know the city or its history.

"It's been a real brain drain," Halberstadt says. "Everybody out there is new--albeit enthusiastic--but it's going to take a while to get them up to speed."

The volunteers had spent decades working to build the Victorian village at Kelley Park as the centerpiece of the museum, envisioning it as San Jose's Victorian version of Colonial Williamsburg. As redevelopment ran roughshod over San Jose's historic neighborhoods, local preservationists and historians were appeased by having the best Victorian specimens moved to Kelley Park.

Now Crosson was proposing leaving the park altogether. Rather than the museum centerpiece, Kelley Park would be an ancillary outdoor venue for the museum, a destination for tour buses and schoolchildren, but not a venue for exhibits.

"It has upset a lot of people because the volunteers have put in thousands of hours, and all of a sudden it's all going to get dumped," sighs historian Bill Wulf. So shaken is Wulf's confidence in the administration of the museum, he's decided to will his considerable personal collection of memorabilia to San Jose State. "That's the only place it's going to be safe," he laments.

historic trolley
Christopher Gardner

Trolley Good: Local history buffs have taken great pride in the restorations at Kelley Park, including the historic trolley. The new director says it's all been too Victorian, and that must change.

KELLEY PARK HAS ALWAYS had its critics, even in San Jose's community of historians. Called a "preservation petting zoo" by some, it is criticized for being too much a simulation of history, a street scene preserved almost as an oddity under glass, and not a part of the living historical fabric of the city.

But Kelley Park has other logistical liabilities.

"Kelley Park is so isolated for people who are coming here," memorabilia collector Leonard McKay says. "I always thought it was necessary to change exhibits so people would want to come back. The archives aren't accessible at the present time ... [and they're] housed on the second floor of a wood building; a very dangerous place to keep them because of fire."

"It's sort of a building orphanage," Crosson says, describing the current site at Kelley Park. "Which is a valuable thing to do. But can you create a museum out of it?"

Crosson points out that the largest number of accessible buildings at the park--the Pacific Hotel, firehouse, Chinese temple and Portuguese Imperio--are replicas, not originals. Crosson is developing a marketing plan for Kelley Park that will utilize its natural advantages as an outdoor concert venue and festival space for outdoor cultural events.

SIMMERING BENEATH THE hurt around Kelley Park is a subterranean culture war whose battleground is San Jose history itself. On one side are the mostly white teachers, seniors and historians who have built Kelley Park and who act as volunteer custodians of San Jose history. On the other side are the multiculturalists: some politicians, academics and historians who believe there has been too much focus on the "founding fathers" view of history--that San Jose history began with Thomas Fallon and reached its pinnacle about the time the electric light tower stood in the intersection of Santa Clara and Market streets from 1881 to 1915.

One of Crosson's first communications as director to museum members opened a wound that has yet to heal. In a 1997 issue of the museum newsletter, The News, Crosson penned a letter from the president which read, in part, "The majority of people who live in San Jose who are not of northern European heritage have history. It may be Chinese or Mexican or Korean or African. The very term 'Victorian' ... should have no meaning to these, the majority of San Joseans." Further on in the letter, Crosson wrote: "History museums of the twenty-first century must be in the business of mending the dangerously frayed social fabric of America. To do this, we must move beyond nostalgia."

"That was a polarizing thing to say," Wulf says. "I know a lot of people who didn't rejoin because of that letter in the newsletter."

Crosson's point, that there had been too much emphasis on the Victorian history of San Jose, almost went without saying. Kelley Park is, by definition, a Victorian village. The hobbyists who had dominated the museum in the past were most interested in that period and celebrated it with such events as Living History Day, Victorian Christmas, a Victorian wedding and Civil War re-enactments. Under Crosson, the future of all these events is in doubt. The last event to end, Victorian Christmas, was canceled last year, Crosson says, because attendance had been dropping for five years, it took up a great deal of staff time and its promotion was expensive.

The last year it was put on, Crosson says 1,800 people attended over two days, but only 400 of those were not already members or volunteers.

Likewise, the Victorian wedding, he says, was "fun," but it didn't draw anybody and the costs weren't covered.

In the past, Crosson says, museum activities were "clubbish" and appealed to a narrow group. "The people were doing it for themselves rather than a broad audience," Crosson says.

Replacing these festivals will be more ethnic events. Crosson is collaborating with the Mexican Heritage Corporation and recently returned from a research mission to Mexico City with Fernando Zazueta.

"I think every ethnic group should be represented, but the Europeans were here the longest and I believe they should have the most recognition," Wulf counters. "Why not just keep the celebrations and add other celebrations? Why polarize with ethnic things?"

But historians point out there have been some historically silly things done in San Jose in the name of multiculturalism, and historical illiteracy is rife all through government.

Halberstadt's favorites are Plaza de Cesar Chavez and Quetzalcoatl. "Chavez wasn't born here, didn't live here, yet we take the oldest pueblo park and rename it because it's politically expedient," she argues, and "Quetzalcoatl has nothing to do with San Jose."

But despite the historic errors committed in the name of multiculturalism, Crosson is committed to diversifying both the interpretation of San Jose history and the people who visit and volunteer at the museum.

"If you look at the percentage of [Europeans] who lived here prior to 1860, it's very small," Crosson says. "The percentage of Latino and Asian is quite high. Those people are not included in the Victorian interpretation. Our programs need to start embracing not just the Victorian Christmas, but the importance of Ramadan. If children come here and don't see themselves here, then they're being told they're not part of San Jose history. That can lead to a feeling of alienation and anger. We have to get people to buy into our collective history, not alienate people."

Along with the celebrated historical gaffes committed in the name of multiculturalism, there are others that can be blamed on nothing but sheer ignorance.

When the Redevelopment Agency searched for a name for its housing development on North First Street, it decided on Ryland Mews, in spite of the fact that the Ryland property actually existed on the other side of First Street.

"That is the fault of the Redevelopment Agency that didn't know where to get primary data," Halberstadt says. "It annoys me when I go there."

Likewise, Crosson sees public policy debates going on in complete ignorance of recent American history. Pundits characterize the impeachment proceedings as a pinnacle of partisanship in American politics, but the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was certainly more partisan. "It happened right after the Civil War, the most partisan event in American history!" Crosson says with a laugh.

A hole of historic ignorance like this is big enough for Crosson to drive his museum truck through.

"I think a history museum has a tremendous role in bringing context to any current-issue discussion," Crosson says. Only a little more than a year into his stewardship, Crosson and staff are planning their first exhibit, "Voices of Gold: The Impact of the Gold Rush on Santa Clara Valley."

Crosson believes that when the exhibit comes off this summer, it will smooth over a lot of the feathers that got ruffled when he took away the Victorian Christmas.

"To this date all we've done is talked and taken things away," Crosson says. "As we start creating things, filling the void, people will start coming back."

In the meantime, Crosson has embarked on a fundraising campaign unprecedented in its ambition. To secure the downtown site next to Peralta Adobe he has to raise $2 million by the end of June. In it will be new space for exhibits, museum offices and a research center meant to give a city focused on its future a place to investigate the past.

Crosson and his staff hope to make a name for themselves by diversifying, professionalizing and expanding the history museum into a model regional facility like the Oakland Museum of California.

The transition from hobbyists and collectors to careerists is a step not unique in the growth of institutions like the history museum.

"Every institution goes through an evolution," Crosson says. "History museums are founded by the founding- fathers syndrome, where we want to worship the founding fathers that made us what we are today. It's a process not unique here to San Jose."

Ultimately, Crosson envisions a museum with a strong presence downtown, with rotating, vibrant exhibits, a diverse corps of youth and adult volunteers, and a strong, appealing public identity. Until then, he's asking for a little patience.

"When touring the Queen Mary up the Guadalupe, it's hard to maneuver some of the turns," Crosson says. "Anyone who wants to participate in redefining an institution, we're open. We're listening to everybody."

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From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro.

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