No one can accuse the San Diego History Center of going halfway when it comes to the Balboa Park 2015 Centennial Celebration. “Our plan is that in 2015, we’re going to turn the entire History Center into a yearlong centennial celebration,” said Charlotte Cagan, the History Center’s executive director. “That may be more robust than some of the other institutions, but we’re going to go for it.”
Cagan’s strategy would seem logical, given the centennial’s obvious historical significance. Who better than the History Center to demonstrate the influence the landmark 1915 Panama-California International Exposition had on Balboa Park and the region?
But the center is going far beyond presenting a history lesson in 2015, although one of its centennial exhibits will be primarily about the 1915 exposition. An organization that is relatively unknown compared with some of the park’s higher-profile institutions, the History Center plans to assert itself into the community consciousness in 2015 with an array of exhibits tied to the theme of innovation, which is the overall emphasis of a citywide centennial celebration now branded as Edge/2015.
“Long term, our direction — our vision, if you will — is the San Diego History Center is an absolutely vital community institution,” Cagan said. “It’s one of our most important community institutions. It is the go-to place for everything related to San Diego and the repository for that.”
More than a “repository,” however, Cagan sees the center as a forward-looking organization that helps define, identify, build and promote community.
“We are every bit as much about the future of San Diego as we are about the past and the present,” Cagan said.
The History Center’s 2015 offerings promise to make that vision tangible with a trio of concurrent exhibits: “Dr. Seuss & the Art of Ingenuity,” “Splendor in the Scrub” and the centerpiece exhibition, which will continue beyond 2015, “Ingenious! San Diego’s Unfolding Innovation Story.”
“We’re going to help re-brand San Diego as the third-largest global innovation center,” said Cagan. “It’s something that’s being talked about but isn’t being owned yet.”
For those who only see San Diego in terms of its weather, beaches and military, “Ingenious!” should be a revelation. Comparative studies by Harvard’s Michael Porter and others place San Diego in “the top three to five” in the nation in terms of innovation, according to Mary Walshok, a History Center Advisory Council member, associate vice chancellor for public programs UC San Diego, and the author of a forthcoming book on San Diego, “Invention and Reinvention: The Evolution of an Innovation Economy.”
“Ingenious!” will celebrate San Diego’s innovators, from the arts to aerospace, maritime technologies to biotechnology. Employing cutting-edge holographic displays and interactive technologies developed by AV Concepts, the exhibit will introduce visitors to the region’s primary innovators and transport people into the spaces where innovation happens, whether the lab, garage or studio.
AV Concepts will also develop a “Central Idea Exchange” for the exhibit. This “interactive neural network” will allow visitors or groups to enter their own innovative ideas and interact with others.
“We’re partnering with the San Diego Innovation Center, a 10-year-old nonprofit headed by community leader and philanthropist Malin Burnham, whose goal is to eventually open a permanent innovation museum in San Diego,” Cagan said. “But they knew they couldn’t have it in place by 2015, and we also wanted to tell the story of innovation, so we joined forces.”
The center’s two other centennial exhibits will also employ AV Concepts’ forward-thinking technology. In “Splendor in the Scrub,” a history-based exhibit focused on the original exposition, the center will frame the 1915 expo as “San Diego’s first innovative event.” Cagan wants visitors to be “blown away” — just as they were in 1915.
“We want to enable people to understand how mind-blowing 1915 was to visitors,” she said. “It was utterly amazing, phantasmagorical, so we’re trying to create an environment where people can have that experience.”
With the help of “4-D media programs” that combine computer-generated imagery, audio, dimensional sets and multisensory effects, visitors will be able to “enter history,” or at least several replications of the attractions at the 1915 expo.
The center will also offer presentations interpreting the 1915 expo’s major themes, but its signature attraction will involve pioneering woman aviator Katherine Stinson, known as the “Flying Schoolgirl” when she flew at the 1915 expo. Stinson, through the magic of holographic, video and digital technology, will perform her signature loops in the center’s atrium.
The “Dr. Seuss & the Art of Ingenuity” exhibit will use portions of a traveling Seuss exhibit, “Dr. Seuss & the Art of Invention” (a hit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry in 2011-12) and incorporate additional elements developed specifically for the History Center. With one gallery devoted to Theodor Geisel’s children’s work and another dedicated to his “serious” artwork, the exhibit will also feature materials from the Geisel library at UC San Diego and Geisel’s foundation.
The Seuss exhibition might play into a possible Seuss-themed parade in the park and collaborations with the Old Globe Theatre during its 2014 and 2015 runs of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
“I think we are all looking to 2015 to galvanize new attention and new energy on Balboa Park as a whole,” Cagan said. “That means increased, sustained audiences over the long haul, and it means increased collaborative activities among the institutions.”
Preparing for 2015 has already had an energizing effect on the History Center.
“We are a key community resource,” said Cagan. “We will demonstrate that in 2015. And we will continue to fulfill that mandate and that mission beyond 2015.”