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The Pure Brightness of Ancestry

Posted by on March 18, 2016

By Sangye Hawke

To learn more about Qing Ming Work Party and Celebration at Evergreen Cemetery, click here.

The Qing Ming Festival (Literal translation: Pure Brightness)  became an ‘official’ festival at the peak of China’s Tang Dynasty.  It’s believed to be much older. This festival, also known as “The Sweeping of the Graves.” or “Cold Foods Day.”  engages modern visitors as they take a moment to reflect upon the impact many diverse cultures, in particular the Chinese, have had in our local community. So, where is the ‘festival’ in all this?
The first historical recognition of the Chinese Burial Ground

The first historical recognition of the Chinese Burial Ground

The most poignant idea behind Qing Ming resonates with all of us: the remembrance of those we lost, and those that came before us.  Sweeping your ancestor’s plot, having a lively meal at their grave are things that many cultures honor. Dia de Los Muertos of Mexico, for example is held in November, or OBon of Japan is held in August. Pitru Paksha in Hindu India is two weeks long! These are times for families to honor and gather around the graves of their ancestors. They clean and repair the family plot, decorate it, tell stories, and visit with other families nearby also engaged in the “sweeping of the grave.” This activity acknowledges the ancestors’ hard work and sacrifice to make a better life for themselves and for us, their children. Depending on the size of your cemetery, it can get quite festive!

unnamed (1)America makes a business of death. Memorial services are private events. Our Day of Memorial festivities take us away from cemeteries and more towards an individual celebration. Rarely do we focus on grave site clean up or sharing a meal at the place itself. We pay someone else at the cemetery to take care of our family plot. The clinical geometry and institutional design in today’s modern cemeteries are for efficient management on a mass care scale.

When the Chinese Monument at Evergreen Cemetery was erected, it was done so with funds donated by George Ow, Jr., himself a resident of one of the last of the four chinatowns that once existed in Santa Cruz.

Yep, FOUR Chinatowns,  existing between 1860 and 1955 within a city then of barely seventeen thousand people. The Chinese did the work no one wanted to do, digging out and draining swampland for our burgeoning agri-business to moving, at the risk of explosion, volatile compounds like gunpowder. Laundry, cooking, basic household service, were all done by the Chinese and other folk of color in Santa Cruz. These  workers gave their lives to create  the city we know today. When they died, they were buried at  Evergreen Cemetery.

unnamed (3)As far back as 1861, there have been these ethnic funereal processions to Evergreen. The Chinese would drive an ox cart laden with musicians, mourners, food, and incense through the main street in town, up the hill and over it, into  Evergreen Cemetery’s   “Chinese Section.”  Here, the deceased would be carried to a chosen space while his (most of the deceased were male) clothing, some food, joss(luck) paper (or “hell money” in today’s lingo), was burned inside what we often refer to as an oven, but is actually called a ‘burner’, provided nearby just for this purpose.

EVR_ChineseMonument_ChingMingWhen the Chinese Cemetery section of Evergreen was in full use, the ex-carnation style burial practice of Bone Picking, removed many of those interred after 4-7 years, sometimes after 10 years. The pickers shipped their bones back to China to be reburied in their family’s or villages’ original cemetery. As Historian Sandy Lydon states: “The brick in the grave — wasn’t just left behind — and there was no religious or spiritual purpose for it — it was used as identification because they only used wooden grave markers due to the unnecessary expense of stone since the body was going to be exhumed — the brick was to identify the deceased’s remains.  They were tossed aside once the body was exhumed and his (mostly “his”) identity was corroborated against the company’s records and the village was identified so that the bones could be returned to the family. We are fortunate enough to have a very few of those bricks that were found when we began cleaning up Evergreen in the mid 1970s.”

Found in October 2012 by Sibley Simon

Found in October 2012 by Sibley Simon

If you didn’t do this, it was believed, you were condemned to become a hungry ghost, wandering your city and place of work, causing illness and bad luck to all you encounter.

Bone Picking and these elaborate funeral processions were as described here by Historian Sandy Lydon:   “The restrictions on exhumations — was part of a public-health initiative to go after Chinese practices — it wasn’t prohibited, but it was licensed and they had to get a permit for removal for a fee.  The unintended consequences of the permit process was that we historians were able to reconstruct the frequency and in some instances the identity of those being removed because some of the permits survived in various county repositories.   But, it was never outlawed.  And, it had nothing to do with Chinese Exclusion, but was simply one of many anti-Chinese impulses carried forth in California against the Chinese. (Santa Cruz was the epicenter of the anti-Chinese movement in California.)…   In fact there were full-blown Chinese funerals being carried out in Santa Cruz up into the 1930s — with drums and firecrackers, and roast pigs, etc.  

You can find extensive information about the burial practices in Santa Cruz, with contemporary descriptions,  and legal stuff surrounding them in Chinese Gold, on pps. 131 ff.”  

Despite all this, eight people were “stranded” at Evergreen, their bones unable to make their journey home to China.

Thanks to our friends at  Canine Forensic Investigators the Restoration Team know the location of these last remaining eighteen people. What we may never know are their names, their professions, or where in China they may have originated.

The red tassel honors the blank head marker

The red tassel honors the blank head marker

In fact, one of the last Chinese Grave markers was found in a tree house, as a floorboard!

Both the burner and replicas of original grave markers once seen in Evergreen remain there today as memorials to this practice. One is left blank, to honor all the unknown left behind here in Santa Cruz.

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As our population pressures increase, many of us no longer use cemeteries. Oceanic scattering of ashes is more popular than ever. Today, many families have photographs and other media to remember their loved ones, keeping memorials within the privacy of the immediate family.

This is why making our historic cemeteries more accessible is so important.  Places like Evergreen engage us in  telling stories of times past,  about heroic, tragic, and sometimes humorous ancestors. Taking time to sit alongside the grave of a stranger reconnects us to the wonder of discovery.  The past comes alive. We wonder, did we shared the same fate. Would we have been friends then? These experiences create a sensation of historical continuity. We become part of our community’s history, inspiring us to collaborate in the creation of a future we all want. Someday, our future will be another’s past. Maybe they will be inspired by our history and eat lunch at the place of our memorial.

Is there a favorite historical cemetery near you that needs your care and honoring? How do you honor those that came before?

To learn more about this wonderful Spring based festival and to participate in the traditional task of sweeping the ancestors’ graves at Evergreen Cemetery, click here.

Interested in Chinese History of the Monterey Bay? Check out Chinese Gold by Sandy Lydon. A must read!

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Conceptualizing Art Works, Our Summer Exhibition

Posted by on March 14, 2016

By Wes Modes

This is the second post in a series about MAH’s upcoming exhibition Art WorksTo read the first post, click here.

When I started as summer curator at the MAH, the first thing I tried to do was just absorb all that the Exhibitions Team and the rest of the MAH staff had to teach me. From working as a collaborator, I already had a taste of the experience, hard work, and passion that was here. I added an entry to the top of my ToDo list: “Assume Nothing & Listen.”

Long before we settled on the Art Works exhibition, when we first started talking about a summer show, here’s how I recorded what I heard as the museum’s exhibition requirements:


Click to enlarge.

  • We expect the exhibition to be PG to PG-13, leaning toward PG.
  • The show can be hard-hitting. But engaging rather than provocative or confrontational.
  • The show should have some identifiable art from traditional artists, alongside more experimental content
  • The exhibition will be followed by a community-based show, probably Santa Cruz Collects, so we won’t want two very similar shows in a row.
  • Importantly, the exhibition should be in line with the MAH’s Theory of Change.

Beyond these basic requirements, I began conceptualizing what I wanted to do as curator for the exhibition:

  • Challenge the ideas of what is art and what happens in a museum,
  • Offer really thoughtful, talented, and inspiring art,
  • Offer art that feels challenging emotionally or intellectually,
  • Highlight the voices of those whose voices are not often heard,
  • Transform the gallery space, and
  • Connect strangers in unexpected ways.

So with that in mind, I went through a loose process of brainstorming exhibition concepts. You probably already know the rules of a brainstorm: Throw out ideas without judgement — edit, sort, and judge later.  

Brainstorming fuel.

Brainstorming fuel.

Early in the fall and then later with long-time MAH staff and Exhibition Team member, Marla Novo, we brainstormed a list of show ideas (over lunch at the nearby El Palomar Taco Bar). We had some genuinely terrible ideas, and a few really interesting ones. We starred our favorites, discussed how each one met or didn’t meet all of our criteria, and talked about ways to bring relevant local issues into these ideas. One of the starred concepts was a show that invited artists to create work under the watchful eyes and with the involvement of visitors.

I worked up proposals for our three favorites and presented them to our Exhibitions Team including Executive Director Nina Simon. The Art Works exhibition was far and away the favorite, in some ways, an easy choice for our desire to create a deeply-participatory exhibition and experiment with our exhibition format.

From that first loose brainstormed proposal, our summer exhibition plans have sprung.  Next time, I’ll give you a glimpse into our thinking around the aesthetics of the Art Works summer exhibition. 

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Aspiring, Thriving, or Struggling Changemaker? Join us for MuseumCamp 2016.

Posted by on March 8, 2016


Each summer, the MAH hosts MuseumCamp, a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.
MuseumCamp will be August 31-September 2, 2016. This year’s theme is CHANGEMAKERS. We will host 100 diverse people who are making change in the world, our communities, and our institutions for 2.5 days of fun, fellowship, and active learning. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have faded battle scars to share, we want you here this year.

As always, MuseumCamp will be a high-energy, all-in experience… with enough downtime for introverts, too. The 2.5 days include lightning talks from campers, team design bursts to tackle your thorniest change challenges, MAH community programming, movement and meditation, delicious food, and late-night conversations. Yes you can sleep at the museum. Yes you can swim with sea lions. Yes you can–and will–learn things about yourself and your work that surprise and enrich you.

We’re proud that MuseumCamp brings together a very diverse group by design–campers are 50% people of color, and 50% people from outside museums/visual arts institutions. You do NOT need to work in a museum to attend… and we especially want you to apply if you are making creative change in the civic, social, political, environmental, or economic sphere.

The MuseumCamp website has more information about this year’s camp and how to apply. It also has testimonials from past campers and information on past years to help you get a sense of the experience.

MuseumCamp is for activists. For designers. For knowledge workers. For people on the front lines. For managers. For creative types. For anyone seeking to make positive change in your community. If you are interested in applying to attend camp, please check out the site and fill out an application today. We will accept applications through March 25 and inform people of selections in early April. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon.

And please, help make space for others by spreading the word. Many campers share that the best part of the experience is the diversity of campers. The strength of our experience together is partly based on the opportunity to come together across different disciplines and perspectives, and we want to continue pushing for that. In that spirit, we would especially love for you to apply if you:

  • identify as a gender other than female
  • identify as a person of color
  • are over 50
  • work in a field that is not visual arts/museums

While MuseumCamp has a registration cost (sliding scale $150-$250), we work with sponsors to underwrite all scholarship requests. Most sponsors are amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. If you are interested in helping provide financial aid for this amazing event, you’ll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.

Want to make a change? Please apply now to MuseumCamp–and if you have a friend who you think would love this, encourage them to apply too. Let’s make creative change together.

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This was originally posted on Museum 2.0, a blog by Executive Director Nina Simon.

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Behind-the-Scenes of Our Upcoming Summer Exhibition

Posted by on February 20, 2016

I have the honor of serving as the summer curator at the MAH. This summer we are doing a four-month exhibition that includes a rotating series of artist’s residencies that we are calling “Art Works.”

Jared Andrew Schorr, The Man Behind The Curtain

Jared Andrew Schorr, The Man Behind The Curtain

I’m always interested in the behind-the-scenes story of everything. I’m the kind of person who skips through a mediocre movie, but methodically works my way through the DVD extras behind-the-scenes. This goes doubly for art practice. I always want to know not just “How did you do that?” but “How did you think of that? How did you settle on all the aspect of that concept?” So in this series of blog posts, I’ll try to give you a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the goings-on of the MAH Exhibition Team.

That additional transparency feels even more appropriate since that was part of our goal with the Art Works exhibition. We wanted to give you an unobstructed view of art-in-progress and access to the artists making it. After working with the concept for a while here’s what we settled on:

Art Works will be a months long open studios in which artists literally do their work in the gallery and visitors witness and even become part of the process. The Solari Gallery is transformed into a series of open walled studios in which up to three artists at a time work in a variety of mediums on work addressing the themes of building stronger communities and neighborhoods, bringing the audience into the process of their work.

Next, I’ll talk about this exhibition’s conceptual beginnings, its superhero origin story.

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The most creative county in America? 10 reasons to be proud of Santa Cruz

Posted by on November 19, 2015

The best moments from our community of artists, history buffs, surfers, activist youth, and firebreathers.

We are only as strong as the community we build, together. Stay involved in the MAH community in 2016.


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Why are you proud of Santa Cruz County’s creative community? Comment with your story below.

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