In a museum setting, how can we make sense of why some exhibitions are received better by the public than others? To oversimplify, museums exist to care for and display objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance; but such as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an object or an exhibition’s significance is determined by the viewer.
In her blog, Meditations on Relevance Part 5: Relevance is a Bridge, Nina Simon discusses the unveiling of two exhibitions at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History; one centered on the legendary hippie favourite The Grateful Dead (entitled Dear Jerry), and the other pertaining the origins of surfing in Santa Cruz– and ultimately surfing in the Americas (entitled Princes of Surf). The first exhibition focuses on the relationship between frontman Jerry Garcia and his devoted ‘Deadheads’. The latter, consisting only of two surfboards, tells the story of three Hawaiian princes who, “introduced surfing to the world beyond Hawaii.” Simon notes that while both exhibitions were increasingly ‘significant’ concerning Santa Cruz’ heritage, the visitor stats revealed they were not deemed by the public to be equally ‘relevant’.
When it comes to dealing with the cultural heritage of the region, why is it that surfing has been deemed more ‘relevant’ to Santa Cruzians than the band whose songs on youtube or otherwise continue to inspire a myriad of comments such as, “The Dead was America”? No one can argue that The Grateful Dead remains a critical patch in the tapestry of American music; despite this, many of us recognize that their music was part and parcel of a movement that has largely lost continuity with the modern day, beyond being found in the occasional American sub-culture or in the sands of Burning Man.
On the other hand, Santa Cruz has achieved a lasting and far-reaching imagery of surf and skater life in America. Even as an Albertan- relatively removed in both a geographic and cultural sense from the elusive Californian lifestyle, hardly a day passes in my hometown where I don’t pass the infamous Santa Cruz logo in one form or another. Even as an outsider, it’s easy to see that surfing has maintained a largely continual presence in coastal life since its introduction over a century ago.
The reason I’ve chosen to focus on Simon’s blog as opposed to another example is because I think it speaks to a much larger phenomenon in the field heritage studies. That is, the phenomenon of ‘performance’ as it pertains to ‘cultural identities.’
We can think of ‘cultural performance’ as something a group actively participates in, and that, “through their enactment, represent the self-proclaimed cultural history of a group.” Similarly, we can think of ‘cultural identity’ as a ‘processual’ and ‘interactive’ concept that strengthens how a group sees itself and feels connected within that group. This likeness or sameness is then ‘activated’ in certain situations. Holidays. Sporting events. Museum exhibitions.
At the end of her blog, Simon poses a question to her readers wherein these concepts are important: how does one define the difference between ‘relevance’ and ‘significance’ when it comes to heritage projects?
My short-winded response would be this: the traditions that cultures willingly keep alive through cultural performance determines their relevance, and ultimately their success, as a heritage offering.
The overwhelming appeal of Princes of Surf is that it centers on a concrete story wherein contemporary surf culture has an origin story. Both this story’s setting and characters enable today’s Santa Cruzians to locate themselves on a narrative that began with the three Hawaiian princes in Santa Cruz over 130 years ago. A century of cultural performance has led the tradition of surfing to become a key aspect of the region’s cultural identity.
Heritage maintains its relevance not only by connecting us to the past, but also connecting us to our peers. It’s active, rather than passive. Alive. Simon poignantly exemplifies this noting the activities of Three Princes Day were, “like a reverse funeral for history being raised from the dead.” If anything, the success of both Princes of Surf as well as the events of Three Princes Day reveal a great deal about how museums can create successful exhibitions as well as the events that compliment them. Communities have a desire to engage with their common pasts and make it real. Museums can make it happen.
Princes of Surf is not more ‘significant’ than the Dear Jerry exhibition, but it is more ‘relevant’ to Santa Cruz when seen through the lens of performance and identity. The ability to see oneself in a heritage offering, such as the case with Princes of Surf, and to feel ownership over the narrative makes that version of the past more significant. Therein lies the success of the exhibition and its events. The Dead was America, but the surf was and still is Santa Cruz.
Brubaker, Rogers, and Frederick Cooper. “Beyond Identity.” Theory and Society 29 (2000):1-47.
Kidd, Jenny. “Performing the knowing archive: heritage performance and authenticity. ” International Journal of Heritage Studies 17:1(2011):22-35.
Whigam, Kerry. “Performing a future (in) performing a past: Identity, cultural performance, and the Utopian impulse.” Tourist Studies 14:2 (2014): 203-224.