But sometimes the museum's role within history is revealed, and that is the case with photographer Richard Barnes' exhibit "Still Rooms and Excavations," which documents the 1994 discovery of a long forgotten "potter's field," or pauper's graveyard, directly under the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
The graveyard, which dates from the Gold Rush era, was unearthed as a result of seismic retrofitting to repair damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. To the consternation of museum officials, and the fascination of Barnes, contractors working on that refit began digging up the remains of between 750 and 800 of San Francisco's poor who had been interred between 1868 and 1898.
The excavation quickly became the largest post-Gold Rush archaeological site in Northern California.
Barnes, who has participated in archaeological excavations and photographically documented finds for museums, says the irony of finding the graves of hundreds of poor and working-class San Franciscans underneath a repository of upper-class culture and wealth was, for him, almost overwhelming: high European art above indigent local bodies. The absurdities noted by Barnes at the Legion of Honor excavation are, indeed, legion.
Directly under Rodin's The Thinker, for example, is a crypt designed for Alma Spreckels and her husband, Adolph Spreckels -- of California and Hawaii sugar wealth -- who founded and built the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The couple was not buried there, because of laws that prohibited burials within the city's boundaries, but Barnes speculates that they would not have liked this particular eternal resting place anyway. The crypt sits in the midst of 200 pauper graves.
"This building is imported. It is a 19th-century European building that represents civility, strength, and grandeur. The types of building that this one is modeled after are Greek temples. ... Banks are designed this way. Government buildings are designed this way. Museums are designed this way," Barnes says. "But the interesting thing about this is there is this whole community that lay underneath it for 70 years that was totally forgotten."
And when that community was rediscovered, he says, "there was no real interest from the museum in preserving it -- or even talking about it. They wanted to hide it. They wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible."
When he heard about the find after returning to the United States from an archaeological dig in Egypt, Barnes volunteered to excavate the site, but soon realized its importance and began his photographic documentation. "It brought together all my interests: Here is the museum, archaeology, architecture, collecting," Barnes says.
The hundreds of burial sites were all anonymous. There were no monuments.
"There was no documentation of anybody at all. Eight hundred burials -- no documentation," notes Barnes. "That is a combination of things: Many of them were very poor. A lot of these people did not have next of kin. It could have been that a lot of the burials were unmarked. ... We did find a lot of Chinese shoes and artifacts."
The very mundanity of the objects found was noteworthy, especially when contrasted with the carefully preserved art upstairs (as it were) in the Legion of Honor. The burial sites held combs, buttons, revolvers, bottles, shoes, safety pins, and even false teeth. The skeletons themselves told stories.
"The archaeologists speculate that ... because of the injuries they had to their shins, a lot of these people worked on the docks, [because there would be] barrels coming off the docks there were a lot of contusions to lower legs," Barnes says.
The nature of the burial sites also suggests poverty. At that time, each nationality of significant population in the city had a separate graveyard; only the very poor ended up in mixed burial sites. Some of the findings at this mixed site were macabre; there were, for example, a lot of cadavers from medical schools. "Two heads in a box, body parts," Barnes notes. "We speculate that medical schools were burying their remains after they had finished an autopsy."
Another local archaeologist, Paula Frazer (who also happens to be the lead singer with local group Tarnation), says the experience was chilling. When the Legion of Honor was built -- from 1920 to 1924 -- the original contractors just plowed through burial sites, and plumbers laid pipes right through bodies and skeletons.
"It was one of the spookiest archaeologist jobs I have worked on. A lot of the burials had clothing, had hair. Some of the people were even mummified. It was a pretty intense dig. There were a lot of women and babies. There were a few Chinese, not many, it was mostly Scottish, Irish, French ... who worked on building all the brick buildings around S.F."
The atmosphere of the dig was odd enough, Barnes says, that some of the seismic contractors were quite unsettled at first. He says some security guards were reluctant to go back in the building after dark.
"One security guard was so freaked out he quit," Barnes says.
Although he does not dwell on the issue, Barnes acknowledges that archaeologists were upset because the museum pushed them to speed their work. Some bodies were exhumed and reburied in a Colma cemetery. Because of time pressure, some bodies and parts of bodies were left beneath the museum.
"We are talking about historical memory and the effacing of that memory," says Barnes. "The [museum was] just so insensitive to what was going on and the potential for -- this was the largest post-Gold Rush site that has ever been excavated, at least in Northern California, properly."
"This presented a great opportunity for the archaeologists," he adds. "How [the bodies'] injuries indicated their professions; what they were eating; what they were dying of; what shape their bones were in. They had a wealth of material here, but the museum just wanted to get it buried as quickly as possible, so it would not cause any controversy."
Part of the reason for the museum's skittishness may have involved the discovery one year earlier of a slave cemetery on the site of a proposed development in New York City. In that case, says Barnes, "all hell broke loose, because the black community was very upset by the fact they were going to violate these graves."
The developer was eventually forced to pay for a full archaeological dig -- and build a monument to the slaves. "I think the museum saw the same thing happening here in this very liberal community. Somebody was going to say, 'These are our relatives; who you are erasing and taking away?' "
But no one did, perhaps because the bodies involved did not belong to ethnic groups or nationalities that have focused on disinterment as a political issue. Indeed, among the Irish, Scottish, and French communities, only the French held any sort of ceremony on the discovery and reburial of the bodies. Barnes suspects that if the bodies had been from a politically active group -- Native Americans, for example -- the seismic refit of the museum might have been shut down.
"It would have been very controversial. But it wasn't. It was poor whites."
Barnes is at pains to point out that his exhibit represents more than a simple critique of the museum -- which, after all, hired him to document the renovation. He is more interested in exploring how the dig reflects the way histories are chosen to be recorded by museums and other cul-tural guardians.
"The artifacts [found] are incredibly simple. But there is a poignancy to that simplicity, in juxtaposition to the rarefied objects that are housed up above," Barnes says. "I don't want to hit you over the head and say, 'Look at what this stupid museum is doing.' ... It was not like I expected them to put [the artifacts] in their museum, but I just hope it causes people to think about their own history, and where they came from, and how they will be represented in the future.
"Or if they will be represented."
"Still Rooms and Excavations" appears at San Francisco Camerawork, 115 Natoma (at Second Street), from Oct. 10 to Nov. 22.