Category Archives: San Francisco Museum & Historical Society

“Ten Years” Tour: Using New Technology for History

Chris Carlsson installing a "Ten Years" plaque at 2937 - 24th Street. 2011 photo by LisaRuth Elliott/Shaping San Francisco.

In the recently published Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco, 1968-1978, editor Chris Carlsson and the contributing essayists argue that the years 1968-1978 saw important innovations in grassroots political mobilization in San Francisco. These innovations included new directions in environmental justice work; changes in student, labor and immigrant organizing; housing rights and anti-gentrification campaigns; and unprecedented interventions against racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Accompanying the publication of the book is the release of a self-guided walking tour. The tour covers twenty-four sites in the Mission District, and each site is related to an essay that appears in Ten Years (a map of the sites is available for free at City Lights,  The Green Arcade, and other local bookstores, galleries, and cafés;  and can be ordered online for $5). Visitors to each tour site can dial (877) 919-7464 to hear an audio recording by the essays’ authors about the sites  – similar to audio tours by phone offered at some museum exhibitions.

What is especially innovative about the Ten Years tour is the use of on-site QR (“quick response”) codes. Posted at each of the twenty-four sites is a plaque identifying the location as part of the Ten Years tour. Visitors can use their smartphones to scan the QR code featured on the plaque, automatically opening one of twenty-four webpages on their phone. For example, visitors to 3030B – 16th St.,  near the site of the former San Francisco American Indian Center, can find a Ten Years tour plaque that includes the following QR code:

QR code for "Reflections from Occupied Ohlone Territory"

When this QR code is scanned from the “Ten Years” plaque (or from this computer screen) with a smartphone, a webpage opens on the phone with an excerpt of Mary Jean Robertson’s essay, “Reflections from Occupied Ohlone Territory.” The webpage also features an audio file of Ms. Robertson reading from her essay. The audio file can be heard by clicking on the “play” button of the audio bar, or, if visitors are using an iPhone, an mp3 of the recording can be downloaded.

This is not the first time Chris Carlsson has used of emerging technology to deliver historical content. Carlsson is one of the founding members of Shaping San Francisco, a grassroots project dedicated to documenting underrepresented aspects of the history of labor, ecology, transportation, and political activism in San Francisco. Beginning in 1998, the Shaping San Francisco team had developed some of this historical content and made it available in the form of CD-ROMs. Perhaps more interestingly, Carlsson and his colleagues also installed 6 public kiosks around they city – including locations such as Rainbow Grocery, Modern Times Bookstore, and the Anarchist Book Fair. The kiosks featured desktop computers that were not connected to the Internet, but whose hard drives contained of the content from the CD-ROMs. Together, the CD-ROMs and the public kiosks were intended to make this historical content as accessible to as many potential users as possible. Furthermore, users were encouraged to submit original content themselves – such as oral histories and historic photographs – for future upgrades of Shaping San Francisco.

By 2009, however, the Shaping San Francisco team had phased the kiosks out. The  team migrated the historical content from the CD-ROMs and kiosks to a new format – an online wiki called FoundSF. By choosing to use a wiki, the Shaping San Francisco team was again implementing an emerging technology. The FoundSF wiki has been supported by both CounterPULSE and the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.

Although stand-alone kiosks with no Internet connection became obsolete, at the time of their debut they were a groundbreaking use of new technology. Similarly, wikis and QR codes might eventually be superceded by other ways of delivering historical content. However the new trends develop, Carlsson and his colleagues may well continue to blaze trails by acting as early adopters of emerging technology to make historical content as widely available as possible.

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San Francisco History Expo 2011

SF Mint ca. 1900, courtesy the US National Archives

The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society (SFMHS) will be hosting the first San Francisco History Expo on Saturday, February 12 and Sunday, February 13 from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00p.m. at the Old Mint on the northwest corner of 5th and Mission Streets. Admission is free; and over 20 local history organizations will have exhibits, including:

In addition to the exhibits, the Expo will also feature a variety of programs, including: live performances, screenings of historic films, a forum at which authors will read from their recently published histories of San Francisco, displays of art by Frank Alan Zimmerman and by the San Francisco Quilters Guild, and opportunities for visitors to record oral histories and digitize photographs to be posted on the FoundSF website. On Saturday at 2:00 p.m. there will be a Community History Panel featuring Woody LaBounty of the Western Neighborhoods Project, Peter Linenthal and Abby Johnston of the Potrero Hill Archives Project, and Vicky Walker of the Bernal Heights History Project. On Sunday at 2:00 p.m. there will be a presentation on the work of muralist Mona Caron; and at 3:00 p.m. Willy Lizárraga will give a presentation on the history of San Francisco Carnaval.

Kristin Morris, Associate Curator for the SFMHS, points to the SFMHS’s ongoing series of monthly programs in explaining the basis for this collaborative event. This series has provided an opportunity for the SFMHS to partner with variety of local historical organizations, inviting those partners to introduce their work to a larger audience. Now, the SFMHS has invited those same organizations to participate in the Expo in order to further extend their outreach. The SFMHS is providing free admission in the hopes of attracting as many visitors as possible – especially students. By including exhibits by local archival repositories such as the California Historical Society and the San Francisco History Center, the SFMHS also hopes to introduce visitors to venues where they can conduct their own historical research.

The SFMHS plans to continue ongoing renovations to the Old Mint building and to eventually convert that space into museum of  San Francisco history. Because the SFMHS has a limited collection of materials for exhibition, the new museum would involve a collaboration with some of the organizations who will be participating at the Expo. The permanent exhibition would include artifacts on loan from many of those organizations; and some of the organizations will also be invited to curate temporary exhibits.

For more information about the Expo, please call the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society at: (415) 537-1105, extension 100.

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Ghost Tours as a Way to Engage the Past

"Nob Hill Hotel at Night" 2008 photo by Marla Showfer

In honor of Halloween, I’d like to consider three ghost tours as examples of ways that San Francisco neighborhood history can be presented.

SF Chinatown Ghost Tours have been led since 1994 by Cynthia Yee, a community organizer and nationally-recognized dancer. Yee’s maternal great-grandfather, Fong Louie, immigrated from China in 1885. His Chinatown stories were passed d0wn to Yee’s mother, Mildred Fong, one of the pillars of the 光明佛道研究會 (Quong Ming Buddhist and Taoist Association) in Chinatown. Yee has told me that her idea for the tour came after going on tours in New Orleans. To develop her performance, she has drawn primarily on two sources: stories she learned from her mother; and coverage in local English-language newspapers (such as the San Francisco Chronicle) about Chinatown events such as the 1977 Golden Dragon Massacre. Yee tells me that she keeps track of  current news coverage rather than research older newspaper accounts or use archival repositories such as the Chinese Historical Society of America. At the same time, she has told me that Chinatown residents bring her news accounts, providing material to further develop her ghost tour presentation.

Similar to Cynthia Yee’s experience, Jim Fassbinder’s participation in a tour outside San Francisco prompted him to create the San Francisco Ghost Hunt, which he has led since 1998.  To develop his presentation, he did research at the San Francisco History Center, reviewed online content from the California Historical Society, enlisted college undergraduates to provide research assistance in academic libraries, and conducted oral history interviews. In his comments to me, he singled out the staff of the San Francisco History Center as being especially helpful in directing him to primary sources such as historic maps. Fassbinder chose Pacific Heights as the site of his tour partly for logistical reasons – the relative quiet, safety, and ease of walking – in addition to the stories he had learned about the neighborhood. Fassbinder has commented to me about his tour, “my main goal is this: I want everyone on a Ghost Hunt to have a real supernatural experience in a safe way.”

Playwright Kitty Burns has lead the Vampire Tour of San Francisco since 2001. Like Cynthia Yee, she was inspired to create the tour after participating in a tour in New Orleans.  To develop her presentation, Burns reviewed published histories – particularly Fire & Gold: the San Francisco Story by Charles Fracchia, founder and president emeritus of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. Burns also reviewed published articles and online content. She told me that her most valued resource, however, came in the form of oral history interviews she conducted with persons affiliated with commercial establishments and other institutions along her tour. Burns also indicated that the ongoing input she receives both from participants on her tours as well as persons affiliated with her tour stops continue to provide material for the further development of her presentation. Like Jim Fassbinder, Burns related to me that she selected the site of her tour – Nob Hill – partly out of logistical considerations such as safety. She added, “Nob Hill was a perfect area because all the stops on the tour are well known and very classy.  I thought that would add to the humor of a vampire tour.”

Part of what is striking to me about these three neighborhood-specific tours is that despite the differences in how the three guides conducted research for their presentations, all three of them turned to oral history interviews with neighborhood stakeholders as a significant source of content. What is also striking is that whereas many other contexts for engaging San Francisco history involve encounters with artifacts, or architectural features, or primary source materials such as historic documents and photographs, these tours intimate the possibility (with varying degrees of seriousness) of encounters with persons from the past  in the form of the ghosts or vampires of today.

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