Feb 10, 2014Vol. 44, Issue 3

Student-Built Anthropology Exhibit Brings Shipwreck to Life

Into the Blue runs through July 24 at the Valene L. Smith Museum of Antrhopology. (Art by ATEC Design Studio)

Into the Blue runs through July 24 at the Valene L. Smith Museum of Antrhopology. (Art by ATEC Design Studio)

The year is 1850: A ship built in Baltimore, first used for smuggling opium from India and later for shipping cheap goods to California, crashes into the breakers near Mendocino, sinking to the ocean floor. Everyone aboard survives, but true excavation of the shipwreck is delayed for nearly a century and half.  

Today, a number of artifacts from the Frolic, a Baltimore Clipper that went down on Northern California’s rocky coast in 1850, are featured as part of the newest exhibit at the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology. Into the Blue: Maritime Navigation and the Archaeology of Shipwrecks features authentic objects recovered from the ship on loan from the Mendocino County Museum.

Created entirely by students in anthropology professor Georgia Fox’s Exhibit Research, Design, and Installation (ANTH 467) class in fall 2013, the exhibit traces the story of the ship bound for San Francisco carrying goods from China and how its items were later excavated from Native Californian historical sites and donated by divers. The exhibit also features artifacts from naval historian Robert Benner’s world-class collection of navigation instruments, including an astrolabe, a Polynesian navigation chart, a ship’s chronometer, and a sextant. 

The students created display labels, mapped a floor plan, and designed and built nearly every element in the 1,500-square-foot exhibit. In addition, graduate students using CSU, Chico’s Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology (ALVA) created a film about the shipwreck, viewable in a ship-shaped theater located inside the museum. The film includes interviews with archeologist and author Thomas Layton, who has led the Frolic’s excavation over the last several decades and written three books on the subject. (Layton, emeritus professor of anthropology at San Jose State University, was in attendance at the exhibit’s grand opening Jan. 23.)

Others on campus also contributed to the exhibit, like graduate student Scott Burghardt, who designed and built an exact-to-scale replica of the Point Cabrillo lighthouse in Mendocino (pictured in slideshow below).

Into the Blue is a full-scale, interactive exhibit chronicling a quintessential California story,” said Adrienne Scott, curator of education for the museum. “The Frolic shipwreck is a starting point for many tangential topics—nautical navigation instruments, Native American culture, the Gold Rush, Baltimore shipbuilders, and more. It’s truly a cross-campus, cross-California project with application to many.”

After the exhibit’s conclusion July 24, much of the students’ work will return with the artifacts to the Mendocino museum to update and revitalize its existing exhibition on the Frolic.

The Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology is located in the Meriam Library complex. It is open 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; admission is free. Several events related to the exhibit will be hosted this spring, including a presentation by English professor Matthew Brown on African diasporic sailors and writers and their contribution to our knowledge of slavery and emerging forms of resistance. The event is slated for 4 p.m. on March 9 at the Chico Women’s Center.

Visit www.csuchico.edu/anthmuseum for more information.

—Sarah Langford, Public Affairs and Publications