One of the top things on Hannah Mahoney’s “to-do” list this summer was to guide museum-goers through building a cardboard replica of Pacific Street, Santa Cruz, California’s historic main drag. It sounds like child’s play, and in a way it was—but the kicker is Mahoney also got to rack up work experience for her efforts.
Mahoney, a history major going into her senior year at Oregon State, spent the summer as an intern at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
Her task was to create interactive exhibits for the museum’s “Third Friday” public events that would not only educate the people of Santa Cruz about their town’s history, but would also get them involved in it.
As a public historian, that’s what I want people to do in museums,” Mahoney says. “I want people to be talking and be part of the history instead of having to stay behind lines that you can’t go past.”
And so for Third Friday’s “Street Art Night,” Mahoney procured dozens of cardboard boxes— some of them taller than the children who participated in the exhibit—and coached citizens of Santa Cruz through the process of recreating Pacific Street’s early 20th century landmarks.
There were cardboard buses, and stores, and even pets. There were factories, and restaurants, all informed by the research Mahoney did in the museum’s archives.
“I found old pictures of how Pacific Street looked,” she says. “It was to show kids how it used to look, and then people recreated it and did their own street art on the cardboard boxes.”
To Mahoney, it was people’s way into history they might have overlooked.
A new home
Mahoney wasn’t always certain she wanted to go into history, but she was sure about Oregon State. An Orange County native, Mahoney wanted to have a college experience beyond California’s borders.
She and her parents researched several out-of-state schools, and then cross-referenced them: Oregon State made everyone’s list.
It became a definite thing as soon as she visited campus. “I totally fell in love with it, and said, ’Oh, this is where I’m going,’” she says. “I wanted a West Coast school with an East Coast feel, with historic buildings. Oregon felt like home. I still walk out of my house every day and feel lucky to live here.”
Mahoney was also convinced by the people she met here. Kerry Kincanon, the head adviser in Oregon State’s exploratory studies program, where Mahoney started out before declaring history, made an impression on her.
“He was super nice. I saw that the staff was great there. I knew I could have that college experience that everybody wanted,” she says.
History comes alive
Although Mahoney loved history, she wasn’t sure she could make a career out of it. But Kincanon encouraged her. “He said, ‘if you want to do it, you can make a job out of it,’” she says.
She was also inspired by an art history class she took fall of her freshman year—the instructor had worked in a museum. It made Mahoney wonder if she could combine her love for community service and history and work in museums or national parks.
Mahoney’s next step was taking an archival studies class with Larry Landis and Tiah Edmunston-Morton last year.
There, she learned about an internship that would gain her practical experience: organizing archival material for St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church in Portland, and then presenting to the congregation on their annual Parish History Day.
St. Philip the Deacon was established in Portland in 1911 as one of the city’s first African-American churches, and now values its current, diverse congregation as one of its greatest strengths.
Mahoney loved the opportunity to talk to them on Parish History Day and get help identifying some of the archival photos.
“I don’t think it’s very often that you get to talk to the people who created the collection. Usually they’ve passed away,” Mahoney says. “I’d talk to people, and they’d say, ‘This is my relative, or this is my mom.’ I felt like they were famous. It was like I knew them.”
Throughout her senior year, Mahoney will be working to digitize the church’s archives so they will be publicly available. She’ll be happy to continue working in the archives.
“Tiah Edmuson Morton, Larry Landis and Natalia Fernandez have all been really influential people to me,” Mahoney says. “They are so supportive of the my ideas and they are always willing to talk with me.”
Looking back to move ahead
Having the opportunity for internship experience is just one of the things Mahoney values as a history major at Oregon State.
“I didn’t choose Oregon State for history, but I probably am getting the better history degree I would have gotten anywhere else,” she says. “All the professors are great. They really love where they are and what they’re doing.”
To Mahoney, understanding history is key to understanding how things came to be. “I think it’s the only way to look forward,” she says. “I was trying to explain to my friend, who’s an engineer, who didn’t think history was important. I said, ‘Well, that bridge that fell down 50 years ago, you need to know why, right?’ Then he got it.”
In the future, whether she’s creating interactive exhibits or reaching into the past with community members, it’s the personal connection with history Mahoney wants to maintain.
Now a senior, she’s researching graduate programs in public history. “I feel like whatever community I’m in, I want to help them tell their story. I like to help them identify what they need and their history,” she says.