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Shared Memories

After wildfires, local museums help communities heal

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SANTA ROSA STRONG - History is art at the Museums of Sonoma County’s Fire Project.
  • SANTA ROSA STRONGHistory is art at the Museums of Sonoma County‚Äôs Fire Project.

Santa Rosa Strong History is art at the Museums of Sonoma County's Fire Project.

Last year's North Bay firestorms were the most devastating in California's history—at the time. But this year has already seen more fires, and people are again suffering. Looking ahead, what lessons can we take from the past to help one another?

In Santa Rosa, the Museums of Sonoma County address that issue by expanding their community roles to create a permanent historical record, the Fire Collection, and an online repository of creative works, the Fire Wall, that together comprise the Fire Project.

"We want to be able to tell multiple stories in the best way we can, to try to express our experience as a community," says Art Museum executive director Jeff Nathanson. He and History Museum curator Eric Stanley are also co-curating an anniversary exhibition, "From the Fire: A Community Reflects and Rebuilds," opening Oct. 6.

Items from the Fire Project are featured in the exhibit, with new work by local artists like Gregory Roberts, whose Sonoma Ash Project features over 150 ceramic objects made from ashes donated by fire survivors to memorialize the homes they lost, and Brian Fies' Fire Story comic, which will be displayed in full alongside his sketchbook and pencils.

The exhibition encourages people to process their experiences, and recognizes our community's resilience. "I think that [shared experience] changes the way you relate to neighbors and the community around you," Nathanson says. "We all become better human beings."

Public engagement isn't new for the museums, which opened their doors for free after the fires to visitors eager for social contact. A month later, museum staff met with arts organizations, the library and historical societies to respond to the unfolding crisis.

Calls for public participation resulted in an outpouring of writing and art. The museum began documenting everything, and partnered with oral historians Listening for Change to record personal anecdotes. "It's changed us and will impact us for years to come," Stanley says.

Museum staff also went to the city yard, salvaging street signs damaged in the firestorm's searing heat and melted streetlamp fixtures from Fountaingrove and Coffey Park. A couple asked the museum to collect the tombstone of Mark West, whose gravesite sat on their property. An antique Japanese sword retrieved from Paradise Ridge winery reveals layers of history—sometimes objects can seem immortal.

"Our perspective changes so fast with something as intense as the fires," Stanley says. "It's important to remember what's happened, reflect back and take lessons going forward."

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