"Do you want to see the attic?"
I've been at the Sonoma County Museum for 45 minutes when Pat Lenz says the seven words I've been dying to hear. Of course I want to see the attic, and on she leads me up a narrow staircase, twisting and turning until, with a flick of a light switch, before me is an enormous part of the museum I've never seen before.
Parts of the Museum You've Never Seen Before take center stage at "In My Back Yard," an exhibit opening Jan. 25. During October and November, over a hundred photographers visited the museum, given free access to every square inch; the result is an extensive series of 10-by-10-inch photos of the building's corners, crevices and angles, displayed inside the museum itself.
"I think what's going to be interesting is the mix of what we call professional versus amateur," says Lenz, who, with co-curator Dominic Egan, first produced the "In My Back Yard" idea at her SlaughterhouseSpace Gallery in Healdsburg. When digital photography, and especially photo filtering services like Hipstamatic and Instagram, rose in prominence, many professional photographers dismissed it as cheating. But "you can't fight it," says Lenz, "and you have to kind of say, in a way, 'This is good for photography."
Interestingly, the photos are displayed without labels, so that professional photographers hang beside hair stylists popular on Instagram, tinkerers with Hasselblads, the clients of Becoming Independent and students from the SRJC. The prints are for sale at different prices, but how visitors react is based purely on the work itself.
There is an old saying about photography stealing one's soul, but "In My Back Yard" serves instead to uncover the soul of the museum. Images were taken while laying flat inside the elevator, balancing on a ceiling joist, craning beneath a thermostat. "I did actually hear the staff say, 'Oh, wow, I've never seen that part of the museum before,'" notes Egan.
The great stucco building, with four giant columns and Spanish-style roof tiles, was built in 1910 as the Santa Rosa Post Office and Federal Building, on Fifth Street. In the 1970s, misguided city planners negotiated construction of the mall, and the building was slated for demolition. In perhaps the most famed architectural preservation in the city's history, historical architect Dan Peterson arranged for the building to be slowly towed for 800 feet, on railroad tracks, to its current site.
In the show, subjects range from the lobby's elegant chandeliers—rescued in 1979 from the Poulsen Building at Fourth and A streets, another casualty of the city's shopping mall—to unassuming piles of clutter in a back room. An image by Ned Kahn shows a splatter of water—from a fountain? a sink?—while others feature models walking, literally, on the walls of the space.
There's a Dadaist sculpture by Boris Landau, a large 45-by-45-inch lenticular photograph by Margeaux Walter and Robin Lasser, and larger black-and-white prints by Bob Cornelis. Sausalito artist David Broom has a full wall, and Shanti Knapp, Hanya Popova Parker, Sara Webb, Cat Kaufman, Mary Jarvis, Mario Uribe and Jan Nunn are but a handful of the participants in this encompassing, inviting show.
From the attic, I find what I've been looking for. In the public staircase of the museum is a wall; about six feet up from the floor is a mysterious door with no steps or ladder leading to it, an awkward relic from the building's former use. Like many museum visitors, I have often wondered where that door leads, and there in the attic, behind a chain, I find a similar-looking door. Could it be?
I crack the door slightly, and see the staircase below . . .