Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Meditations on Relevance Part 5: Relevance is a Bridge

Blessing of the Replica Boards, July 19, 2015, 8am. Photo by Jon Bailiff.
Relevance is not an end unto itself. It is a bridge. When you open the path, people flood in. You open the potential for something more.

But a bridge to nowhere is quickly abandoned. Relevance only leads to deep meaning if it leads to something significant. Killer content. Substantive programming. Muscle and bone.

This summer, we opened two exhibitions at my museum that are highly relevant to local culture. One is about the Grateful Dead (Dear Jerry), the other about the dawn of surfing in the Americas (Princes of Surf). Dear Jerry is relevant because Santa Cruz is a hippie town, UC Santa Cruz maintains the Grateful Dead Archive, and the Dead did their final tour this summer. Princes of Surf is about the young Hawaiian princes who brought surfing to the Americas 130 years ago--relevant because they did it in Santa Cruz, with boards shaped from local wood, on waves I bike by every week.

Both of these exhibitions are relevant to the cultural identity of Santa Cruz. Both had good design, great programmatic events, and enthusiastic response. But one of them--Princes of Surf--completely outshone the other. Crushed attendance records. Yielded mountains of press. Captured people like we've never seen before. Princes of Surf isn't "more relevant" than Dear Jerry. But its gateway led further into our community, deeper into the heart-spirit of Santa Cruz.

What makes Princes of Surf so special? The exhibition is small and fairly traditional in design. It features only two artifacts: the original redwood surfboards the princes shaped and used in Santa Cruz. Picture a room with two really long pieces of old wood, and some labels around the walls. That's about it.

And yet. These two pieces of wood are like the Shroud of Turin of surfing in the Americas. They are the answer to a mystery, proof of something we'd long believed but couldn't verify. They are at the heart of how so many people in my community define themselves. These boards connect modern-day surfers to something greater than themselves: across oceans, across cultures, across time. It's not about nostalgia. It's about a new connection to something deep inside.

Princes of Surf is simple. It starts with a theme--surfing--that is relevant to our community. And then it delivers something new and shocking, something old and reverent, something worth getting excited about.

The story of how these surfboards became significant speaks to the fickle face of relevance. Before the Princes of Surf exhibition, these boards rested deep in the collection storage of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. As royal boards, they were sufficiently relevant to the Bishop's mission to be collected--but not compelling enough to warrant exhibition. They were in storage for 90+ years before historians in Hawaii and Santa Cruz discovered they were THE boards in the first known record of surfing in the Americas in Santa Cruz. The boards became relevant and important in Santa Cruz, and we paid a huge amount to have them conserved and shipped here for exhibition. But their significance here doesn't translate across the ocean. After this "blockbuster" run in Santa Cruz, the boards will go back in storage at the Bishop Museum, where their relevance warrants preservation but little adoration.

In other words, these boards are significant--but only here, only because of their relevance to Santa Cruz. Attributes like "significance" are almost always contextual. And potent. When context and meaning line up, objects gain power.

Exhibiting these boards reminds me how rare it is to exhibit truly significant objects. So often in museums, we assuage ourselves with the idea that in the digital era, people will still visit museums because they want to see "the real thing." What we don't admit is that many of the "real things" we display just aren't compelling enough to get people in the door. We lie to ourselves, writing shiny press releases for exhibitions of second-class objects and secondhand stories. The rechewed meat of culture. The thin, oily soup of blockbuster shows. They may be relevant, but that doesn't make them valuable.

I remember the last time I saw an object that was so relevant, and so valuable, that it had huge community impact. It was June of 2009. Michael Jackson had just died, and I was at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, where they hastily erected an exhibit of the jacket and glove he wore in the Thriller video. Many organizations hosted tributes to Michael Jackson, but this tribute, this artifact, this outfit that froze Michael Jackson at his most insane and fabulous and other-worldly--it mattered. It was relevant AND significant.

When you hit both these notes, people respond. With Princes of Surf, it started before the exhibition opened. People lining the street on the Tuesday afternoon when the boards arrived from the Port of Oakland, cheering as the crates came off the truck. People pouring in to see the show. Grown men fighting for seats at lectures about the history of the boards. Couples stopping me on the street to marvel about the story. Kids wearing commemorative t-shirts around town. The exhibition is still open, and every week I have these moments--in the museum and out in the City--where people tell us and show us how much the boards matter to them.

My favorite moment of this project was on July 19, 2015, 130 years to the day since the teenage Hawaiian princes were first documented surfing on mainland USA in Santa Cruz. We celebrated the anniversary with a surf demo, paddle out, and luau. One of the most prominent surfboard designers in Santa Cruz, Bob Pearson of Pearson Arrow, shaped fourteen replica redwood boards for the demo. We partnered with pro surfers, shapers, surf historians, Hawaiian restaurants, a local radio DJ, and a Hawaiian biker club to make it happen.

It's always nerve-wracking when you host an event with an unconventional format. I remember early morning on July 19, getting on my bike, wondering if anyone would be at the beach when I arrived. Who in their right minds would show up at 8am on a Sunday for a history event?

I arrived to a sea of people, heads bent before a blessing of the boards. I stumbled into the throng. Someone handed me a lei. I walked with hundreds of fellow Santa Cruzans along the shoreline to watch pro surfers attempt to ride the replicas. People lined the cliffs above the water. The tide was low, and we walked way out along the break, cheering the surfers on, watching them rise and fall. 

Back on the beach, the mayor proclaimed it Three Princes Day. The Hawaiian motorcycle club hefted the 200+ pound replicas and carried them down the shore to the rivermouth where the princes first surfed, like a reverse funeral for history being raised from the dead. A the mouth of the river where the princes rode, Hawaiian elders led us in a song of blessing. And then we got into the water again - hundreds of us, on redwood boards and longboards and shortboards and paddle boards and no boards at all, paddling out to form a circle in the ocean out beyond the break, holding hands, feeling the connection. We paddled back, dried off, and spent the afternoon drinking beer and dancing hula in the courtyard outside the museum.

July 19, 2015 Paddle Out, 11am. Photo by Levy Media Works via drone. I'm a speck in the water, top right between a blue and yellow board. Note the crowd at the river mouth in the background on the beach.
July 19 was amazing. For me personally, it was life-changing. And it had almost nothing to do with relevance. Yes, this project matters most in Santa Cruz, where the boards were born, but the relevance of the story was just the spark. Just the opening of a door of connection and meaning and depth and learning and love.

So let's celebrate relevance. Not as an end, but as a means. If your organization focuses on your local geography, be relevant to that. If you focus on a particular community, be relevant to them. If you focus on a discipline or art form or niche, be relevant to that. And then work like hell to make meaning out of it.

Because relevance is just a start. It is a bridge. You've got to get people on the bridge. But what matters most is what they're moving towards, on the other side.


This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. Thank you for taking this journey with me. It is an experiment in form, and I value all the comments and conversation around it. If there are other topics you think should be included in the series, please leave a comment with that topic for consideration.

Here's my question for today: Have you seen an object or work of art become relevant and powerful for a short time or in a particular context? How do you define the difference between relevance and significance? 

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.
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