What's curious about the current exhibit at the Berkeley Historical Society is that it almost encourages people to stay away from the Berkeley Historical Society. "From the Attic: Preserving and Sharing Our Past" offers detailed guidelines for the armchair curator, or anyone who wants to contribute to a private posterity without ever leaving home.
The exhibit is a self-directed preservation workshop, divided into four categories: textiles, photographs, paper documents, and oral histories. Its displayed objects -- fabrics and papers dating as far back as the 19th century, photographs from throughout the 20th, and excerpted oral histories spanning both -- are annotated not according to their specific historical relevance, but in terms of how they've worn out over the years, and what could have been done to better protect them.
"I hope it will encourage people to think of history not only as a story, but as a series of hints and clues that happen to get saved over the years," says curator Katie Wadell. "Plus, I hope they'll think about what can and should be preserved."
Archiving instructions can't possibly be fun or enlightening for everyone, even with help from earnest attempts at interactivity ("Please touch!" one sign reads). But in this fast-paced, transient age, it is important to remember that garments and documents become brittle, photos blur or bleed, and people die. If you don't get them while they last, who will? The Historical Society understands that, like politics, all history is local.
There's something rough-hewn about "From the Attic," but that sits well with its do-it-yourself appeal. If you saw this exhibit in a natural history museum, you might consider paying less than the suggested donation, but if you saw it in your uncle's basement, you would congratulate him on making the most of his retirement. What the exhibit lacks in adventure and aesthetic handsomeness it makes up for in approachable utility. Wadell will be pleased "if people walk away realizing that there are gaps in the historical record, but that the gaps may be filled in many ways."
One striking object is a street sign that was burned in the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland fire. Here the history is more in the damage than in the object. Alternatively, the "Pest Buster" chart from Washington, DC's Textile Museum offers detailed drawings of clothes moths, carpet beetles, and silverfish, with time-tested tips for busting them.
Visitors may depart with free guidebooks, covering everything from the pH of storage materials to humidity control to disaster preparedness, all written in the calm, curatorial voice of someone who spends too much time in the archives: "Expanding folders are good for interim storage of collections that are growing rapidly, such as children's artwork, or active correspondence."
If only such presence of mind could be found as readily in the home as in the historical society. This week: Susie's Drawings, on the fridge through August. Next week: Thank-You Notes and To-Do Lists. It's unlikely that all of Berkeley will begin toting daily planners in Mylar pouches, wrapping socks in acid-free paper, or recording grandparents' impressions of lengthy city council meetings. But in a city of practicing ephemerists, anything to repel historical infirmity might one day be good for all of us.
"From the Attic: Preserving and Sharing Our Past" is open through July 26 at the Berkeley History Center, in the Veterans Memorial Building, 1931 Center St., Berkeley. 510-848-0181. http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/histsoc/
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