By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Thursday April 16, 2009
Working on the UC campus and walking daily through the streets of
Berkeley, I've seen thousands of posters and flyers over the years,
many commercial, but many also cultural or political, displayed
everywhere from official bulletin boards to telephone poles.
They range from event announcements with dramatic graphics, to
hastily scrawled flyers calling people to action on this or that
cause, to the rantings of lunatics, all of them particularly
ephemeral cultural signposts.
Fortunately for our understanding of local history over the past
generation, Free Speech Movement activist Michael Rossman began
collecting local posters in the 1960s. By the time he died in 2008 he
had amassed more than 25,000 items, a varied and irreplaceable record
of the local past.
An eclectic and intriguing sampling of Rossman's collectionplus
graphic material loaned by other collectorsis being unveiled Sunday,
April 19, when the Berkeley Historical Society will open a new
exhibit, "Up Against the Wall: Berkeley Posters from the 1960s,"
curated by archivist and collector Lincoln Cushing.
Cushing calls the period covered by the exhibit the "Long '60s."
History rarely pivots on an exact calendrical cycle. What we think of
as "The Sixties"political ferment, cultural change, social conflict,
especially in places like Berkeleydidn't really begin until about
1964, and didn't end until the mid-1970s.
"As 1950s America woke up from the deep chill of McCarthyism and the
Cold War, a new genre of popular culture blossomed in the streets of
Berkeley during the mid-1960s," Cushing writes. "Spurred by the
success of local rock and counterculture posters, political posters
were vibrant public documents that promoted a wide range of social issues."
Cushing will give a brief talk and introduction to the exhibit at the
Sunday event, which also doubles as the Berkeley Historical Society
Younger Berkeley residents and readers, weaned on 24-hour-a-day,
ever-changing Internet ubiquity, text messaging and personal cell
phones, may not quite realize the impact of paper posters in previous
decades. Often times the primary publicity for an event, particularly
something like a quickly organized political rally, would be posters
or flyers on the street corners, and word of mouth.
The posters for the exhibit chronicle the era in vivid graphics and
color. They include announcements of local concerts by iconic artists
like Pete Seeger and Country Joe and the Fish, political causes
ranging from Stop the Draft Week to People's Park, political
campaigns, social movementsincluding posters for a gay Valentine's
dance in the UC Berkeley Student Union, and the Berkeley Women's
Health Collective--and early expressions of environmental causes from
recycling, to banning the pesticide DDT.
The exhibit text also outlines how poster production evolved,
including workshops and programs at local colleges and artist and
activist collectives, and the parallel evolution of the posters
themselves from utilitarian event and cause announcements to works of
art that ornamented many a local apartment and commune wall as well
as museum collections.
"Up Against the Wall: Berkeley Posters from the 1960s"
3-5 p.m. Sunday, April 19, at the Berkeley History Center in the
Veteran's Memorial Building, 1931 Center St. The History Center's
regular hours are 1-4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The exhibit
runs through Sept. 26. Free admission. A detailed outline of the
exhibit can be seen at www.docspopuli.org/articles/BHS2009.html.
Steven Finacom is a member of the Berkeley Historical Society Board.