Munro: 'ValleyFirsts!' exhibit at Madden library unfocused, underwhelming

The Fresno BeeOctober 12, 2013 

Humans are territorial. We naturally coalesce into tribes. In bad times, we fight wars with other factions. In better times, we pay professional athletes large sums to rough up and tackle each other in an ingenious sublimation of violent provincial tendencies.

And at all times, many of us like to indulge in territorial bragging rights — about our city, our region, our state.

The "ValleyFirsts!" exhibition on display at Fresno State's Henry Madden Library acknowledges this tendency to brag. It's a fine impulse. You want to say nice things about where you're from.

In a region of the state that suffers from a finely honed sense of low self-esteem, it's nice to accentuate the positive.

The problem is that "ValleyFirsts!" as an exhibition doesn't deserve any superlatives on its own.

It is not well-focused. And its presentation is underwhelming.

A visitor to the Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery at the library finds an exhibition that covers two floors. It is divided into sections, such as "World Firsts," "California Firsts," sports, culture and agriculture. Most of the exhibition consists of informational placards and reproductions of vintage photos, from Olympic gold medalists to the first McDonald's franchise.

There are historical artifacts borrowed from local history museums, including an example of a "Fresno Scraper" (an agricultural implement), an anchor from a ferry that used to traverse the now-dried-up Tulare Lake, and a Duraflame log (invented in Stockton in 1968). Native Americans are acknowledged. The usual big names are trotted out: William Saroyan, Bob Mathias, Audra McDonald.

Geographically speaking, the scope of "ValleyFirsts!" may be broader than what you're expecting. The exhibition covers the Central Valley in its broadest definition, a combination of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. (Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties are generally considered to be the central San Joaquin Valley.) Remember my point about regionalism? If you don't feel much of a connection with Bakersfield to the south or Sacramento to the north, the exhibition loses some of its local appeal.

Beyond that, to me it was immediately apparent this exhibition doesn't have a strong focus. My first question: What is it trying to be? It turns out that the "Firsts" of the title is only a loose description.

A photograph of the Kings River Flume, completed in 1889, declares it to be the "longest in the world" at 62 miles, for example. Mount Whitney is lauded as the highest peak in the contiguous United States. The General Sherman Tree is included as the largest living tree in the world.

Well, which is it? First? Longest? Highest? Largest? Or, as found in the section devoted to sports, the "winningest" (referring to Fresno State softball coach Margie Wright)?

Even when the subject is a "first," it can seem strained. Any area is going to have a first church, say, or a first TV station, or first symphony orchestra. (All of which are included.) You could take it even further: How about first parking lot? Or why not first tenement? The everything-under-the-sun approach means I guess you could put almost anything in the show.

This might just sound like semantic nitpicking. But the loose application of the exhibition's title makes it seem scattered.

Two sections are particularly problematic. In sports, which acknowledges a number of Olympic gold medalists and other athletic awards, and in agriculture, which looks at innovations throughout the years, the "first" theme is almost entirely dropped. At what point, then, do these sections of the show become vague compilations of sports and agriculture highlights thrown under one tent?

In terms of presentation, the show is at a bare minimum in terms of current museum-display standards. It looks, frankly, a little cheap. (There are even some crooked placards.) For a marquee exhibition much heralded by the library, it's a disappointment.

And while the exhibition offers interesting historical tidbits, I find some of them a real stretch in terms of relating back to the region.

Take, for example, the inclusion of Herbert M. Evans in the exhibition. In 1922 he co-discovered Vitamin E. Pretty impressive, right? Then read Evans' bio. He was born in Modesto, went to the University of California, Berkeley, studied at Johns Hopkins, then came back to Berkeley to teach.

Or Earl Warren, who was born in Los Angeles — not even within the wide geographical range of the show — and then was raised in Bakersfield before going off to college. He went on to become governor and then Chief Justice of the United States.

Both men were impressive. But did they have strong and enduring connections to this area? Perhaps you could argue they did, in terms of their formative years. Still, to me, it's a pretty weak link.

Could it be I'm blaming the exhibition when it's really the "fault" of this region for not producing more impressive achievements? I can see how you could think that. But instead of the broad and shallow approach the exhibition takes, trying to cram in as many names and genres as possible, perhaps it could have focused more in-depth on the real standouts.

I walked in wanting to cheer for my part of the state. Instead I walked out irritated.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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