Serra Museum reopens to public
By Ron James
Two California history venues in Old Town have re-opened to the public.
Presidio Park’s Junipero Serra Museum, which was closed to the general public for more than a year, is now open on weekends. Meanwhile, the newly refurbished Mormon Battalion Historic Site began accepting visitors last month.
Students from the University of San Diego history program under the leadership of Professor Iris Engstrand will work with the San Diego Historical Society to operate the Serra Museum, the Society’s highest profile holding. Because of severe funding shortages, the Society previously was forced to restrict access to the landmark museum atop the Old Town Presidio to only class tours of schoolchildren and teachers.
The white, Spanish-style museum, which is commonly mistaken for the original Mission San Diego, offers exhibits on early San Diego history and missionary life in the 1700s. The exhibits and signage are considered dated by current standards, but the students and the Historical Society hope to expand the museum’s offerings to include interactive learning for children and families.
“We’re thrilled to reopen the Serra museum,” said David Kahn, executive director at the San Diego Historical Society. “It’s one of the most important historical sites in San Diego, near the spot of the first Spanish settlement. We see the building all of the time on the covers of local guidebooks. The site is a landmark and icon of San Diego.”
“It’s going great. Yesterday was unbelievable,” Engstrand said in a Feb. 15 interview. “We had more than 100 visitors just yesterday and we really haven’t had much publicity about the reopening. Our USD student volunteers are excited about it and we’re all looking forward to making it a more entertaining and educational experience.”
“There was a mistaken impression that the museum was closed forever to the public,” Engstrand said. “But it has not really been closed. Actually, about 10,000 elementary school students visited it last year. In today’s world we have to encourage families to go to museums to understand our past and our future. We also want to be more attractive by eventually offering more activities for the family like historical scavenger hunts and craft making. I know the children just love it. After my granddaughter visited the museum she said to me, ‘Gee, Grandma, I just love museums.’ ”
Just down the hill from the Serra Museum, the new Mormon Battalion Historic Site boasts infotainment exhibits that use the latest multimedia story-telling techniques and hands-on interactivity to teach visitors about the battalion and early California history. Formerly known as the Mormon Battalion Visitors’ Center, it is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Mormon Battalion consisted of about 500 men with nearly 80 women who traveled with them under the command of General Stephen Kearny. The unit was authorized by President Polk to help with the Mexican War effort. Their historic 1,900-mile journey began in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1846 and ended in San Diego on January 29, 1847. It was the longest infantry march in American history and the only U.S. military unit made up of church volunteers.
“We had an out-of-date facility,” said Kathy Marler, the Site’s director of public affairs. “We wanted to offer our visitors a phenomenal state-of-the-art historical experience, focusing on this portion of San Diego history and the Mormon Battalion. The Mormon Battalion made a great sacrifice and did extraordinary things because of their faith in church and country. For instance, they built the first roads where Interstates 8 and 15 now run.”
The planning of the center, Marler said, was done entirely by a design committee composed of Mormon volunteers and staff from California and Salt Lake City.
As visitors enter the front door off Juan Street, they will “find themselves in period architecture, Spanish and California,” Marler said. “The entry is marked with a statue of a Mormon Battalion soldier. The lobby is designed to feel like an outside plaza.”
Volunteer tour guides dressed in period clothing greet visitors. A guide leads visitors to a series of framed portraits, where the guide engages in conversation with the people in the pictures, who are brought to virtual life by digital technology. The characters converse with the guide and with people to relate the story of the Mormon Battalion.
One of the digital characters walks out of the picture on the wall into the next area, where the guide escorts visitors into the Encampment Room. Tents are set up and visitors sit among them on logs, listening to more of the story from the characters on three big screens. Two additional rooms depict Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, one of the stops on the battalion’s march west, and the Old Courthouse in San Diego.
Visitors can also pan for gold, make bricks, wear replica period clothing and see authentic artifacts. Among the historical treasures are actual bricks from the foundation of the Old Town courthouse, and a cannon that the battalion rolled across the United States.u
Junipero Serra Museum
2727 Presidio Dr.
Open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Seniors, Students and Military (I.D. required): $4
Children ages 6-17: $2
Children under 6: Free
San Diego Historical Society members receive unlimited free admission
School tours are available by appointment only Tuesdays-Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. To make a reservation, call (619) 232-6203 x112.
2510 Juan St.
Open daily, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Admission is free.