Saving Sunnyvale’s History

By Richard Mehlinger

Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege to be able to volunteer at the Sunnyvale Heritage Museum, mostly by cataloging city planning and land use documents dating back to the 1940s. I’ve had the opportunity to tour multiple times, and to meet many of the hard working staff who have made the Sunnyvale Heritage Museum such a wonderful resource for our community.

A bit about me: Before I moved to Sunnyvale in 2011 to take an engineering job, I had spent two years at UC Riverside earning a master’s degree in history. It was one of the most enriching, eye-opening, perspective-altering experiences of my life. The study of history at the graduate level is very different from how most folks experience it. It’s an intense examination of primary and secondary materials both, and it is, not to put too fine a point on it, really hard.

History is distinct from heritage. Heritage is about preserving and recording memories, documents, and artifacts. History, on the other hand, is about the critical analysis and study of the past, about developing an understanding of the people and events that came before us and how we came to live in the world we do. That understanding helps root people in their own time and place. It helps policy makers decide complex issues, by showing what has and has not worked in the past and why. Perhaps most importantly, though, it is necessary for the foundation of a just society. To quote Terry Pratchett:

If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.

The craft of history requires the preservation of heritage and the collection, documentation, and interrogation of memories. These are the building blocks of scholarly inquiry. The Heritage Museum has done an excellent job of preserving our city’s heritage and documenting the stories and memories of our long-time residents.

Our volunteers work hard to support historical research and inquiry in Sunnyvale, too. Unfortunately, our existing space is totally inadequate to this task. The current museum workspace-slash-research-library is a single 17 by 20 ft room with a few old computers, three folding tables, and some maybe-eventually-heritage-worthy Orchard Supply Hardware tool cabinets.

Right now, when someone comes to the museum with a research request, our volunteers manually search through our databases and our collections of written materials and artifacts to compile the necessary information. We don’t have any way for researchers to access that material themselves. So while our volunteers work hard to preserve Sunnyvale’s heritage and educate others on its past, we simply lack the facilities for independent researchers to be able to use our materials.

In short, we desperately need a new space to provide the support for historical inquiry and research our community needs. The proposed museum extension provides just that. On the ground floor of the extension, a state of the art research library will adjoin the replica of the Murphy house. This will provide additional space for our volunteer staff to catalog and restore donated artifacts, while also allowing independent researchers and members of the community to access and examine our archived materials. The location of this facility is key: by having it adjoining the Murphy house, our volunteer docents will be able to supervise the research library without having to remain posted there at all times.

The proposed extension to the museum will allow the Sunnyvale Heritage Museum to grow and thrive for decades to come. If you’re passionate about Sunnyvale’s heritage, if you’re passionate about its history, please, come to the community engagement meeting On February 20th, 7pm at the Senior Center (550 East Remington Drive) and make your voice heard.

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