Curatorial Errors of Omission, Errors of Commission

This past weekend, one of our long-ago communards came to visit. A group of us broke bread together then three of us went to the De Young museum for their Summer of Love exhibit.* Last fall at the Shaping San Francisco history collective’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Death of Money parade, I suggested that the Digger motto for choreographing street happenings—”create the condition you describe”—should be the working model for historians for presenting historical exhibits. For the Summer of Love, standing and looking at photographs, psychedelic rock posters and mannequins dressed in hippie attire does not “create the condition” that thousands of young people experienced when they were drawn to the Haight-Ashbury like a siren call heard across the vastlands of America in 1967.

But the De Young had one room (among the dozen or so) that came close to the ideal of a museum that re-creates the experience of the past. The room was bare of any objects except double-size bean bags large enough for couples to lay back and observe the four walls and ceiling projection of an hour-long continuous looping of four films that Bill Ham created which depict his invention of the acid rock light show. This room was popular when we visited—the bean bags were filled with couples staring at the slithering colors. Re-creating the actual experience of a psychedelic show would only be possible with the full reality. Nevertheless, the Bill Ham experience does a good job of eliciting one aspect of that environment.


Now for the errors of Omission.

First before mentioning two things about the De Young exhibit that annoyed me, I want to say that the museum staff have produced a very interesting interactive web introduction to the Summer of Love exhibit. Check it out.

Error #1. One of the placards in the room that is devoted to the Trips Festival (1966) is titled “a trip without a ticket” [see photo below] and the accompanying text explains that the festival was “the first event to gather members of the counterculture in a significant way and it remains the pinnacle of the psychedelic era.” Apart from arguing whether the Trips Festival was the “first” such event, my main annoyance is the placard title. “Trip Without A Ticket” was a phrase that was coined and popularized by the Diggers. To use it on this placard (see below) for something completely unrelated to the Diggers is either just ignorance of the source or a willful disregard of acknowledging it. “Trip Without A Ticket” was the title of a Digger street manifesto, an article that appeared in the final Digger Papers publication, and the name of one of the iconic Digger Free Stores. It appeared countless times in street sheets published by the Communication Company (for example: here, here, here and here.


Error #2. Similar to the first, another Digger slogan is used without attribution. “Do Your Own Thing” is the title of a display placard that explains the concept behind the motto. The accompanying text [see image below] gives a fair definition of the phrase (limited to the sense of individual fashion and style) but never mentions the Diggers as the originators and publicists nor the larger meanings the phrase had. Granted, today you hear “do your own thing” from all spectrums of society (including politicians on the Left and the Right both). It appears in news articles in both the underground (Internet) media and national news outlets. It’s in common usage. No explanation required. But in the context of the De Young exhibit on the Summer of Love, attention to the origins of counterculture phrases would seem to be an essential historical detail. Again, the mistake could be lack of knowledge of historical facts or disregard for acknowledging them.


The formal title of the exhibit at the De Young is “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll.” I did not see any placards that mentioned the United States War in Vietnam. There is nothing mentioned about the Diggers. [There is one wall with six Digger sheets/posters, but nothing explains who the Diggers were or what they did.] The backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, the Berkeley Free Speech and Anti-War movements, and the North Beach Beat Poetry renaissance were the foundations of the counterculture. The mixture of psychedelics and avant garde art and music gave rise to the Haight-Ashbury community, but opposition to the United States war in Vietnam was ever present. Street literature confirms this argument, as can be seen in this Communication Company broadside.

Errors of Commission.

One of the other museums with Summer of Love exhibits is the California Historical Society (CHS). They have an amazing collection for such a small institution. Their exhibit is much smaller than the De Young’s. I want to visit it again before writing my thoughts. There were two mistakes in the Digger display, though. I brought these to the attention of the Director. First, the Diggers were active from 1966 to 1968 NOT 1967-1968. Second, the famous photo of the five Diggers on the steps of City Hall after they were released from their arrest on Public Nuisance charges for the Intersection Game is credited wrong. The photographer was Bob Campbell as can be seen in the photo caption (below) as it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Nov 30 1966. The CHS exhibit credits Gene Anthony, which is a wrong fact. That’s an easy correction to make. I hope it happens.


So, errors of omission, errors of commission. We all are guilty of them, I suppose. Hopefully this pointing out of four will be a helpful reminder to historians all—amateur and professional— in using and referencing sources and facts. After all, those are the basis of the science of history.

*There are five Summer of Love exhibits that I know about: De Young, CHS, BAMPFA, GLBT Museum, and the fifth is the display of street posters that Deborah Aschheim designed for the SF Arts Commission on Market Street. Not a traditional museum but an outdoor public space to exhibit her provocative artwork. Deborah’s work has received a lot of publicity along with the museum programs.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s