A WALK ON THE BEACH

On the morning of July 19, 2015, I pedaled my bike downhill towards certain failure. It was a Sunday, 7:30am and chilly. I was headed to the beach. My museum—the MAH—was holding a 130th anniversary party for the first surfers in the Americas. On July 19, 1885, three teenage Hawaiian princes put on the first surfing demonstration ever documented on the mainland of North America in Santa Cruz, California. 130 years later to the day, we went to the same beach to honor the princes’ legacy with a surfing demo on replicas of their original redwood boards.

This all sounds nice on paper. But it also sounds like the stuff of every poorly thought-out grasp for relevance. Surfing is huge in Santa Cruz, but our museum was celebrating an anniversary no one knew about, at a time of year when the waves are dead. At a time of day when most people are sleeping. Tied to a museum exhibition few had seen. Anchored by two ancient hunks of wood—those very first Santa Cruz redwood surfboards, on loan from the Bishop Museum in Hawaii for a homecoming tour at our museum.

As I locked up my bike, I steeled myself for minor embarrassment. I prayed there’d be a few dozen people at the beach, a couple surfers on the replica surfboards. I’d be a good museum director, say a few words, and we’d call it a day. Hopefully, there’d be enough friends and family to pat ourselves on the back and say we did something good for history.

I was wrong. I arrived at the beach to the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at 8am. I stumbled towards the hushed throng, heads bent before a blessing of the boards by a Hawaiian elder. Legendary big wave surfers shook my hand. Someone put a lei around my neck. I walked with hundreds of fellow Santa Cruzans along the shoreline to watch professional surfers attempt to ride the replicas. We lined the base of the cliffs like barnacles. Crowds formed on the sidewalks above the cliff edges, cameras hanging over the fence. The tide was low, the sun came out, and we walked way out along the break, water swirling around our shins, cheering the surfers on, watching them rise and fall.

Back on the beach, the mayor proclaimed it Three Princes Day. Members of a Polynesian motorcycle club—a fierce pack of muscle and leather in a sea of sand and flowers—hefted the replica surfboards and carried them down the beach, like a reverse funeral for history being raised from the dead. At the river mouth where the princes first surfed in 1885, Hawaiian elders led us in a song of blessing. And then we got into the water again – hundreds of us, on replica redwood boards and longboards and shortboards and paddleboards and no boards at all, paddling out to form a circle in the ocean beyond the break. We raised our arms together and splashed in joy. We paddled back, dried off, and spent the afternoon drinking beer and dancing hula in the courtyard outside the museum.

The Princes of Surf project changed my work. It smashed museum attendance records, garnered oceans of press, and shattered my preconceptions about who connects with history and how. Grown men fought for standing room at lectures about the history of the boards. Couples stopped me on the street to marvel about the princes. Kids wore commemorative t-shirts around town. Grizzled surfers pulled me aside to ask if we could swap out the real boards for replicas, keep the originals, and send the replicas back to Hawaii instead.

Princes of Surf changed my life personally, too. It turned me into a surfer. It opened up a new side of Santa Cruz to me. It made me wonder: what is relevance?

I’d always seen relevance as a link, a piece of connective tissue linking someone to something. If something was relevant to you, I figured, it meant that it mattered to you. Clearly, Princes of Surf mattered to a lot of people in Santa Cruz. But here’s the thing: a lot of the work we did at my museum was linked to local interests. Many of our exhibitions seemed just as connected to what it means to be a Santa Cruzan as Princes of Surf. What made this exhibition different? Was it just about numbers—more people feeling that link than was typical? Or was something else going on?

When I looked into the research on relevance, I discovered that experts define relevance as more than a link. In the words of cognitive scientists Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber, relevance “yields positive cognitive effect.” Something is relevant if it gives you new information, if it adds meaning to your life, if it makes a difference to you. It’s not enough for something to be familiar, or connected to something you already know. Relevance leads you somewhere. It brings new value to the table.

In other words, it’s not enough to say: Santa Cruzans like surfing, ergo, they will like a surfing exhibit. Sure, they’ll like it. But will it give them something new? Something that matters? That’s what makes it relevant—and powerful.

And so, instead of thinking of relevance as a link, I started thinking of relevance as a key. Imagine a locked door. Behind the door is a room that holds something powerful—information, emotion, experience, value. The room is dazzling. The room is locked. Relevance is the key to that door. Without it, you can’t experience the magic that room has to offer. With it, you can enter. The power of relevance is not how connected that room is to what you already know. The power is in the experiences the room offers… and how wonderful it feels to open the door and walk inside.

When I thought of relevance as a key, my understanding of Princes of Surf changed. Princes of Surf wasn’t just an exhibition about surfing. It was an exhibition that confirmed an apocryphal origin story about Santa Cruz and surfing in the Americas. The whole project started years before the exhibition, when a gang of surf historians discovered those 1885 Santa Cruzan surfboards in storage at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. I remember the phone call when they asked if the museum would support their research. I can still see those sunburnt surfers sitting in my office, speaking in hushed tones about “Project X.” Their discovery was so fresh, so explosive, so tenuous that they didn’t want to name it out loud.

Their research checked out. The story was true, the boards were real, and we worked like hell to bring them home. The artifacts we displayed in Princes of Surf—those two simple redwood slabs—are like the Shroud of Turin of surfing in the Americas. They are proof that Hawaiians brought surfing to Santa Cruz first.

That connection matters to Santa Cruz. It fulfilled a deep desire for community identity and meaning. It unlocked a new door to understanding ourselves. Those boards whisper to Santa Cruz, you are part of something greater than yourselves: across oceans, across cultures, across time. It’s not about nostalgia. It’s about unlocking a new connection to something deep inside.

Princes of Surf is simple. It started with a theme–surfing–connected to our community. It started with a community—surfers—who were invested in unlocking deeper meaning around their passion. And then, it delivered something relevant: something new and shocking, old and reverent, something we were hungry for in our hearts.

Relevance is only valuable if it opens a door to something valuable. Once I understood the depth of Princes of Surf, I got embarrassed thinking about all the other projects I thought were relevant, doorways I had built for rooms that were hardly more than stage sets. Too often, our work opens doors to shallow, interchangeable rooms. We paint the entrances with phrases like FUN! or FOR YOU!, but that doesn’t change what’s behind the door. People see them for the flimsy motel rooms they are. We lie to ourselves, writing shiny press releases for second-class objects and secondhand stories. The rechewed meat of culture. We tell ourselves that as long as we link our work to people’s interests on the surface, they’ll be rushing for our door.

And they may come in the door… but they won’t come back. Doors to dullness are quickly forgotten. They give culture a bad name. Relevance only leads to deep meaning if it leads to something substantive. Killer content. Unspoken dreams. Memorable experiences. Muscle and bone.

So let’s celebrate relevance. Not as an end, but a means. Because relevance is just a start. It is a key. You’ve got to get people in the door. But what matters most is the glorious experience they’re moving towards, on the other side.

3 Comments


  1. //

    We are a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with valuable information to work on. You’ve done an impressive job and our whole community will be thankful to you.


  2. //

    The Santa Cruz Princes of Surf example is one of positive relevance that sits inside one of the traditional museum roles of telling stories that encourage a sense of community pride and belonging. But what of negative issues such as climate change, or death- they are relevant to every one of us, but are museums willing to broach such dark topics, and would audiences have enthusiasm for them? Here in Australasia we are in the midst of a 5 year commemoration of WW1, and most audiences and museums seem to have had enough of it already. Most museums have focussed overwhelmingly on the well known story of Gallipoli, despite there being 6 x the casualties at The Western Front, perhaps because they are reluctant to break with the heroic story of the birth of the ANZAC alliance, and unravel the less glorious but more personally affecting legacy that alcoholism, grief, shell shock (post traumatic stress), and ongoing disability had on families. Yet these are things that can get handed down the generations, that people still struggle with now.

    I did an informal survey of a few museum directors at the Museums Australasia conference, to see if anyone was interested in the upcoming centenary of The Influenza Epidemic, and all but one shook their heads, saying they had had enough of death. Fair enough, but it affected every community, and could do so again any day- and the events of 1918-19 provide a most convincing argument for pre-emptive and immediate quarantine of communities that most people and organizations are reluctant to undertake until it is too late. Not until you read the history do you understand how vulnerable we are. Surely this is relevant? I feel like museum staff are the kind of people who like the security of hiding in irrelevant seclusion; that they are the gatekeepers who prevent relevant stories from being told, or stories being told from new or relevant perspectives.

    But then they might be right, most people don’t want to talk about death, and don’t know how to talk about death, and think it’s something that happens to someone else… someone in a rough neighborhood, or on the news, or in a police drama… until they loose their partner, their father, a friend or two or three, as I have in the past few years… So I had no idea what to do, with myself, or my children. Yet death is the most universal human experience. Now I totally think we need to talk about death. As do the people who open Death Cafes. But not usually museums.

    Should Museums only talk about the easy, warm fuzzy things? To me, participatory museum experiences open up really exciting opportunities to talk about the difficult things, since they allow the voice of authority, and hence the responsibility for opinions, to come from the visiting public rather than solely the voice of the institution’s curator. An opportunity to share not just a diversity of viewpoints, but to share diverse strategies for helping each other. Are museums willing to lead difficult conversations, or do they only want to follow what they think the public (or their stakeholders) want to hear? I’m not saying it all has to be doom and gloom. But how is it, for instance, that a recent large expensive exhibition about the sun, can have one small afterthought of a panel about global warming, and nowhere for people to discuss local solutions? Museums could be gate openers to current debate, but they are often staffed by fearful gatekeepers of the status quo.


  3. //

    Hi Nina I heard you speak at the Internet Librarian a few years ago-very inspiring! I still follow you and check out your blog. I just read this Walk on the Beach entry-very moving! I look forward to reading the whole book-we discuss relevancy in the library professional world too. I just recommended your book to our library director. Thanks for all the valuable work you do!

    best wishes
    Laural Winter

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