Sometimes, to make indelible impressions, you’ve got to pluck history out of the dustbin and buff out layers of archaic patina to bring forth a sheen that exposes the vivid and the visceral.
Amanda Meeker learned that early. Ninth grade, 1984. Sacramento Country Day School. Mr. Neukom’s Intro to Ancient History class.
“Great teacher,” Meeker said of Dan Neukom. “Knew how to get to you. Like, he told us the way Egyptians embalmed their mummies. They pulled out their brains through their noses. I don’t know if it’s true. That’s my piece of gospel I’ve never checked out.”
The task that now lies before Meeker, newly anointed executive director of the California Museum, located a mere lobbyist’s stumble from the Capitol, is to take this repository of state history and culture with major identity issues and raise its profile. She’ll have to do it by raising funds from oft-reluctant donors and raising consciousness through exhibits that educate, inform, entertain and maybe even provide a few brains-through-noses revelatory moments.
Meeker, 44, certainly won’t be assuming the helm unaware of the museum’s history. Even before ground was broken for it at 10th and O streets in the early 1990s, she was one of the original Sacramento State graduate-school interns charged with poring over archival material for proposed exhibits. Once the museum opened in 1998, she rose through the ranks, methodically (to her) or mercurially (to others) from intern to chief curator and now, with the departure of Dori Moorehead to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, to executive director.
And she’s also seen how the museum, like some fickle teenager trying on identities as often as outfits, has changed names and missions often over the past decade.
It began as Golden State Museum, a showcase for state archives and a serious rendering of seminal events. Then, under the influence of former state first lady Maria Shriver, it transformed into the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts, which introduced the California Hall of Fame as well as a second-floor gallery chock full of of celebrity artifacts. And, in its current incarnation, known simply as the California Museum, Meeker’s mission is to meld the perceived mustiness of serious history with the celeb-driven sizzle of our state’s boldfaced names, offering up both the Dust Bowl and the Hollywood Bowl.
At core, though, Meeker’s biggest challenge may be merely taking a hydraulic lift to the museum’s nearly subterranean profile among Sacramentans and the statewide populace. The museum draws 120,000 visitors a year (half being children on school tours), less than half of the Crocker Art Museum (more than 297,000 a year). And other than its once-a-year, red-carpet night for Hall of Fame inductees and the occasional breakout exhibit (Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition in 2009; the Ray Eames exhibit in 2013), the California Museum is just a blip on the area’s culture radar.
“I think that’s true,” she said of the low profile. “I’ve seen it over the years changing. People have gone from ‘What museum?’ to ‘Oh, yeah, I was there for an event two years ago’ to ‘My kid went there on a tour.’ ... We’re really trying now to push anything we’ve got going on and thinking more outside the box. There’s no point in doing things if people don’t know about us.”
To that end, Meeker and the museum board find themselves straddling a precarious line between exhibits of mass appeal and those of serious cultural and historic import. In September, the museum’s signature exhibit will be Pigskin Peanuts, a compendium of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” football cartoons, on loan from the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. Yet, at the same time, the museum is moving forward with plans to devote 4,000 square feet (of 20,000, total) to a major collaboration with the Capital Unity Center, part of which, the multicultural We Are All Californians interactive exhibit, already is on display.
“Now that ... people are getting to know who we are, we can use the Hall of Fame as a driver to raise revenues for things not celebrity-driven, like (the) Health Happens Here (exhibit) and what we’ve got going with the Unity Center,” said Richard S. Costigan III, board chair. “Those are two marquee exhibits. At the end of the day, everybody knows the California Museum for the Hall of Fame. But that’s just the sizzle, and the rest of what Amanda works on is the slow cooking.”
Perhaps part of the museum’s identity crisis stems from its origin. Though it is partially supported by the state budget – it gets free rent, maintenance and security services from the state – it must generate nearly all its operating budget from private and corporate donations. And whereas the Crocker Art Museum boasts a long history and deep community roots, with Costigan saying that “old Sacramento families have always been very supportive of the Crocker,” the California Museum doesn’t have such a history, the close personal relationship spanning generations, to draw upon.
Tom Stallard, mayor of Woodland and former California Museum board member who resigned after disagreements with Shriver over the “celebritization” of the museum, said he has confidence Meeker can draw interest and donors without compromising the true history of the state.
“I’m very impressed with Amanda, and I’d hope she will try to bring back more of the themes of the state,” Stallard said. “Before (Arnold) Schwarzenegger came into office, it had always been an idea-based museum rather than an object-based one. Maria (Shriver) brought in all sorts of bric-a-brac like one of Elizabeth Taylor’s dresses. That second level (of the museum) even today is a lot of bric-a-brac. It’s a curiosity. But what is it teaching the children of California?”
Give Meeker time to further put her stamp on the museum, board members say. The promotion of Meeker two weeks ago, according to board vice chair Anne Marie Petrie, solidifies for perhaps the first time a unifying vision for the museum.
“You know, we could’ve done a national search, but Amanda’s the perfect candidate,” Petrie said. “No one knows the organization like she does. She’s a great curator. Her exhibits are gorgeous. When you have the opportunity to promote someone I call the blood, sweat and tears of the organization, you do it. She’s obviously going to have a grow a bit on the (fundraising) side, but she can do it. She’s been in there on all those meetings (with donors) for years.”
Meeker, a native Sacramentan whose entire career has been spent at the California Museum, blanched when asked if her ascension means giving up some curatorial control for fundraising duties.
“We’ve always been hand-to-mouth a little bit,” she said. “The board has great connections. (Fundraising) is not my favorite, but I’ve raised some money. I raised money from Intel, for example, by pitching them an exhibit (about the making of computer chips) ... something that’s in their lane.”
Meeker is soft-spoken and hardly pedantic when it comes to her philosophy of history and museum curation. Slim and streamlined in a business suit of muted blues on this day, she only gestured with her hands to make a major point – or adjust her copper-rimmed, rectangular glasses – and became most animated when talking about her black-and-white border collie, Otis. Her tone remained measured, losing composure only briefly when she forgot how many years she has been married to her husband, Wil Davies, a retired state worker.
She exudes seriousness – Anna Kendrick would play her in the biopic – yet her humor is sly. When addressing the fact that the museum must make do with just 20,000 square feet in a building it shares with the vaster state archives and secretary of state’s offices, she deadpanned, “We could stage a coup, but I don’t think they’d like that much.”
She also paused an extra beat before giving answers, a thoughtfulness that Kenneth Owens, her major professor in the Sacramento State public history master’s program, noticed early on.
“Amanda was sharp, but you had to draw her out,” Owens said. “She’s not a person that wants to be out front talking all the time. She needed to be encouraged. But once she got her feet under her, people followed her.”
Petrie effused over Meeker’s “quiet genius,” how she can deftly and subtly tell a story. She credits her work on the ongoing Health Happens Here exhibit, which received an Excellence in Exhibition award in 2013 from the American Alliance of Museums. Conceived by Meeker and funded by the California Endowment, Heath Happens Here combines flashy interactive games meant to entertain and educate children about making healthy choices when it comes to diet and exercise. It could serve as Exhibit A for the type of future programs – a melding of scholarship and engagement – the board expects from Meeker.
“It’s brilliant, that exhibit,” Petrie said. “That’s an exhibit you’d see in London, New York or Paris. I mean, world-class. She has a lot of talent.”
Adept at extracting compelling historical narratives from archival material, Meeker now needs to present the museum itself in such a way as to attract attention.
“We’re going to need to do some shape-shifting,” she said in customary understatement. “But the museum itself has gone through so many changes over the years, it’s very much like I’m not even working at the same place anymore.”
Address: 1020 O St., Sacramento
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Cost: $9 adults; $7.50 seniors and students; $6.50 youths ages 6 to 17
Special event: Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is Family History Day at the museum, in which people can record videos detailing their immigrant experience in California and view others’ contributions. Admission to the museum is free.