Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Place on Earth
By Spencer Castro
B.S. Science Technology and Society, 2011
While the happiest place on Earth allegedly resides beneath miles of car exhaust surrounded by millions of tons of concrete, the greatest is a little further north in a fairly recently discovered (in historical time) valley, beneath light years of stars and surrounded by impenetrable walls of granite.
Of course, “discovered” does not refer to the first people in Ahwahnee, or more famously known as Yosemite Valley, in Yosemite National Park. It refers to the first recorded European encounter with Nature’s throne room. The place that follows and preserves this knowledge, and many other historical firsts, is the Yosemite Museum. Nestled in a slight recess between the granite behemoths, just to the side of Yosemite Fall’s alluvial fan, the museum and part of its collection receive up to one thousand visitors per day during the busiest part of the summer. Every visitor, despite language barriers or cultural differences understands the power of this place, and in the museum their admiration may develop into knowledgeable respect.
Currently the museum houses two exhibits, a life-size replica of a traditional Indian Village, and multiple offices for other branches of the National Park Service. Views & Visitors: The Yosemite Experience in the Early 20th Century, is a new exhibit this year, showcasing many of the attractions the Park Service once hosted, and emphasizing how we have learned good conservation practices from our past.
As an intern in the Yosemite Museum, I have personally inventoried every single artifact on exhibit, which ranges from a 9 lb 3 oz brown trout caught in 1924, to a classic Indian motorcycle that the owner took apart so his mother couldn’t sell it while he was off fighting in World War I. There are also brochures, posters, and pictures of the first transportation services into the valley, and a tribute to the battle for Hetch Hetchy Valley, but the real gems of the Yosemite collection only come off exhibit for periodic cleaning.
The baskets woven of grasses and shoots, so fine they could carry water, yet so big you could put your child in them, are the creation of the first inhabitants of the deep grassy valley; The Ahwahneechee. What is known of their lives before contact with the developed world is very little, but a vast collection of baskets, interviews, photographs, and other regalia is carefully stored, displayed, and protected at the Yosemite Museum. With this many artifacts and families’ stories to go with them, at times there are conflicting histories of the objects. Sometimes assigning an artist/maker to an artifact can be a daunting task, and naming people in photographs doubly difficult.
Records of over 223,000 artifacts are kept dually between the Interior Collections Management System online database and the museum “blue cards”. That’s where I come in. Keeping track of the status of this many items is difficult for a few caretakers with inadequate space. That’s why they rely upon outside help to inventory, catalog, and otherwise identify artifacts in the collection, as well as accession new artifacts that the museum receives constantly.
Apart from record keeping, I have installed new shelving and housing for the wet specimens collection, packed and transported part of the textile collection, identified pests in the Collections Room and set out traps for them, and gone to cross-cultural talks put on by the park employees. It is truly a privilege to view parts of the collection that are rarely available for public viewing or live in a place where you can forget what you are doing just by glancing up, and it further builds my conviction that Yosemite Valley is the greatest place on Earth.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »