This last week of training included an afternoon outdoors to pan for real gold. Panning was going to be great fun and a way to celebrate finishing six weeks worth of classes, touring and quizzes. The fourth-grade visitors arriving the following week would be spending time panning for gold just as we were in the back area of the Museum’s gardens where Gold Rush times are recreated.
When my daughters, Angela and Alexandra, were in fourth grade, I finally made it on a Gold Rush Days field trip. That was 23 and 20 years ago. In those days the Gallery had a different configuration. I keenly remember an exhibit called The Assay Office. An assay office was where miners were able to test the purity of their gold. The assay exhibit allowed the children to walk in the office and attend to miner-visitors who lined up at the window. But in those days, there was no outdoor venue like there is now. The exhibit and the visit all took place indoors.
Currently, the Oakland Museum has a wonderful outdoor area, built as a temporary structure for the opening of the History Gallery in 2010. It was so popular that, four years later, it still stands. It is a recreation of a Gold Rush Camp with a “river running through it” and places to pan for gold. There is an old “rocker” which is a panning device. Gold pans were popular early panning tools during the Gold Rush, along with another tool, the “rocker” or “cradle,” named this as it was thought to resemble a child’s cradle.
The rocker was operated by a team of miners. A small rocker might have two miners operating it, while a larger one might need four or five. The rocker was pushed back and forth by one miner while another dumped gravel into the top part followed by buckets of water. This allowed the finer and heavier particles to drop through a screen. The bottom part of the device had slats, or riffles, that caught the heavier metals. After the men pushed through many shovel loads of gravel, the miners would use their gold pans to sort out the heavy minerals and, with luck, find gold.
At the end of the day, blue, plastic rectangular badges imprinted with OMCA GOLD RUSH GUIDE were presented by Mitchell to each of us individually. As he conferenced with us, we listened as he pointed out our strengths along with just one thing we could each work on as we toured. He told me that I was a good story teller, able to demonstrate my enthusiasm and wasn’t afraid to try something “out of the box.” I needed to tighten up the focus of my tour so that it made sense and work on my transitions from one part of the gallery to the next. “I couldn’t quite understand why you took them from the ship to the tortoise shell combs.” Oops!
Now I remember. Our Discovery Ship Gallery had a tortoise shell representing what was collected by scientists on one of the discovery ships in the 1500’s. It made me think of the beautifully polished tortoise shell combs made to hold the women’s mantillas in the Rancho Period Gallery. I had a stream of consciousness moment. I could have moved from the ship to the Rancho Period if I had said something like, “Little did these scientists know that several hundred years later this tortoise shell would become a fashion statement for women’s hair in both Spain and on the Ranchos which were in the same place where our feet are standing right now. Let’s go find out how that happened.
Instead, I think I said something like, “Oh that tortoise shell reminds me of something over here,” and off we went.
After this, we were ready for our first crew of children. Some of us had tours already scheduled the next day. I didn’t. I was going to tour the following Wednesday. I knew already that I would be shadowing experienced History Docents who were also Gold Rush Guides this week. Watching them carefully one more time, I was sure to pick up a few more tricks. Of course, I had my tour pretty well planned out, starting on the Ship and moving either to the San Francisco area or the Miner’s Store; then moving through the Native American area, especially urging the children to draw similarities between the value of the acorns and the gold, the winnowing basket and the gold pan. I felt very prepared.
The branding color of the Oakland Museum of California is orange. The color is actually called Signature Gold or Pantone 158 Gold-Medium. I happen to love the color, and over those last few weeks I had acquired an orange t-shirt, sweater and cross-body bag to wear while I toured. I paired the sweater with a white t-shirt and felt completely in my role. The label of my orange sweater even reads “Tulle.” Not quite the tule I have in my bag, but it’s close enough and just a coincidence. (Tule is a grass—bulrush—that the native Californians used to make the boats. The boats floated because the tule has little air pockets much like a straw.)
The bag I found for $10 on a sale table. It is perfect for my tools—a little flashlight, a piece of tule, an acorn or two, a vial of gold flakes… Everything was ready. And I had my nails done…not in orange, but in gold polish.
I arrived in the gallery early on Wednesday morning to shadow Pete, a History Docent, for the last time. I took out my orange Moleskin notebook and my mechanical pencil so that I could take notes. When the door to the gallery opened, in walked several docents, but in costume! My heart began to thump and I realized that I was not prepared in the same way as all of the other docents. How had I missed the notice that we were supposed to come in costume?
Several of the women were dressed in long period skirts and blouses with leg ’o mutton sleeves and Pete wore a full-on miners theme. Gone was his nifty jacket with seven to ten pockets all bulging with artifacts for his history tours. He wore jeans, a red flannel shirt with droopy sleeves, a big-brimmed felted hat and a kerchief. I was so stunned I dropped my tools. So much for orange being my new black.
“Were we supposed to dress-up? I didn’t know that.”
“No,” Pete said calmly, “but some of us do.” I realized by the calm in his voice that I would not be thrown out of the gallery for being out of uniform.
What a relief. I hate dressing up. When I taught elementary school and it was time for the Halloween parade, I wore one of my black t-shirt dresses, black tights and made a witch’s hat out of black construction paper.
I began to relax when I saw that not all of the 11 docents were dressed in costume. But when I went home that afternoon, I checked out a website called G & T Van Buskirk, in a town called Columbia in Gold Rush Country.
Buskirk is noted for Fashions and Fabrics of the Gold Rush. They offer “ready made or ‘made to measure’ dresses for ladies, pretty and practical cotton aprons and charming calico sunbonnets.” I decided to pass on a costume for now.
Oh yes, I did wear my orange the following week for my first tour. It turns out that orange is my new black after all. Another docent friend, also named Ron, calls me Orange Girl now.