Researchers seek stories about experiencing bay

By Jon Christensen

How do you experience the bay?

I’ve been on the water in boats of all kinds, walked the shore, waded and swam, and I always have marveled at the views from airplane window seats taking off and, better yet, coming in for a landing.

But my most ecstatic moments of all, I confess, come when driving across the bridges of the bay — and none more so than the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. I felt it the very first time, and my soul still vibrates every time, finding myself in the middle of this marvelous metropolis in such an incomparable natural setting. And the bay is at the heart of it.

My question, though, is a serious one. How do you experience the bay?

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past year looking through the collections at the California Historical Society — which contain more than a million photographs, documents, art works and other items — to get at this question. As a guest curator, I’ve put together an exhibition featuring more than 250 items from the collections exploring how people have imagined the bay, made the bay, cared for the bay and explored the bay over time.

I found surprising, beautiful paintings, including a brooding, illuminated portrait of a hay scow, one of the shallow-draft sailboats that were the pickup trucks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hauling hay and also salt, oysters and even water to communities around the bay.

I found dozens of astonishing photographs by amateurs and professionals of the construction of the Bay Bridge, including some that rival any picture taken of the Golden Gate, along with hilarious shots of celebrations of the Bay Bridge’s opening in 1936. And I found tons of revealing evidence of how people and industry have shaped the bay, or better or worse, and also strived to understand and save it.

But I know there are still very big gaps in our understanding of how different people experience, think about, value, work and play on the bay. After working in the archives and seeing how the historical record itself has been shaped — by powerful people and institutions, by wealth and charity, by big events — I often think more about the holes in our history than I do about the stories that can be told with the evidence that has been left to us

So, working with researchers at Stanford and Historypin, an innovative global social technology partner, we’ve created a crowdsourcing platform to invite everyone in the Bay Area — and beyond — to share their knowledge, memories, stories, photographs and other historical sources about the bay.

We call it “Year of the Bay” — and it’s at — to recognize that 2013 is a big year here. The new span of the Bay Bridge is opening — I can’t wait to drive across that one. The America’s Cup races are coming to the bay. The Port of San Francisco is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The Exploratorium is moving beside the bay. The Oakland Museum of California is mounting an exhibition on the bay’s natural and human history.

And we’re opening up the observances and celebrations to everyone. We want to hear the untold stories, harvest the photographs and learn from people and communities around the bay. So how do you experience the bay and its history

They say that history is written by the winners. Using new technologies to open up the
process of curating history, we can all be winners.

Though his heart is still in the Bay Area, where he lived until recently, Jon Christensen is
now an adjunct assistant professor in the history department and the Institute of the
Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. He is guest curator of “Curating the Bay:
Crowdsourcing a New Environmental History,” an exhibition at the California Historical
Society that opens Sunday (April 7) and runs through Aug. 25.

This essay originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Images: “Girl on a Pier, Alviso, July, 1948,” by Challils Gore; “Hay Scow,” by Julian Rix, c. 1880; Opening day ceremony at Bay Bridge toll station in 1936. Courtesy of the California Historical Society.


Curating the Bay at the California Historical Society

We  hope you can join us Sunday, April 7, from 4 to 6pm to celebrate the opening of an exhibition at the California Historical Society that features centrally our Year of the Bay project. Visit the California Historical Society’s web site to RSVP:

We’ll be there offering live demos and lessons on how to use the Historypin site to add your memories and photos about the Bay, to create collections and slideshows, and tell stories or guide tours through the historical sources we’re gathering together online to tell new stories about the environmental history of the Bay.

And stay tuned. Throughout the exhibition, which runs through August 25, we’ll be offering other walk-in workshops, as well as working with different groups interested in gathering together new historical sources online to tell their stories around the Bay. If you’re interested in attending one of these sessions — or having us organize one for your group — email Jon Christensen at

Let’s make history!




Happy New Year — The Year of the Bay

Dear friends,

Happy new year! 2013 is going to be an exciting year in the San Francisco Bay Area with the America’s Cup races, the opening of the new span of the Bay Bridge, the 150th anniversary of the Port of San Francisco, and Year of the Bay — our project to open up the celebrations to everyone who has a connection to the bay.

To get the party started, we invite you to explore the Year of the Bay here through our growing collection of photographs and stories contributed by libraries, museums, archives, and individuals like you. And we’d like to ask you to help us by doing two things:

1) Share a link to with your friends and colleagues right now via email, Twitter, Facebook, word of mouth, and other channels.

2) Contribute to the project. How have you or your family or your organization related to the bay we all share? Do you have photographs or stories you can share with us?

Together we hope to gather the materials to tell an epic, rich, diverse new history of the San Francisco Bay this year. And through this project help connect people to the bay around the Bay Area.

Over the course of the Year of the Bay we will continue to add materials to this site — in the weeks to come we’ll add maps and challenges and new ways for you to interact with the history of the bay. We’ll also participate in exhibitions on the bay. And we’ll venture out to communities around the bay for events aboard the Alma, like we did on a sail to Hunters Point in the fall.

We hope you’ll join us! As inspiration for our voyages together in the coming year, here are a few photos from that sail.

Yours truly,

Jon Christensen

 Photos by Sarah Thompson