Bearing Light exhibit illustrates 150 years of history at Berkeley

A panel of the display cases in the Bearing Light exhibit
This composite image shows four of the cases in the Bearing Light: Berkeley at 150 exhibit in The Bancroft Library. (Photos by Cade Johnson for the UC Berkeley Library)

Listen closely to the quiet walls outside The Bancroft Library, and you can almost hear it: the chants of protesters, the march of a band, the famous holler of a football announcer.

Or, in other words, a brilliant birthday song.

In honor of Berkeley’s sesquicentennial, a new exhibit, Bearing Light: Berkeley at 150, has taken over Bancroft's second-floor corridor, filling the hall with rare photographs, documents, illustrations, and more. Carefully gathered into six large cases, the materials combine to tell Berkeley’s story, focusing on the bold characters and spirit that have come to define it.

Front and center of the exhibit is the golden bear, and its evolution as a campus symbol — from its triumphant debut in 1895 to modern-day illustrations. Each case focuses on a particular theme or time period and is captioned with related lyrics from “The Golden Bear,” written by English Professor Charles Mills Gayley.

“Oh, have you seen the heavens blue, heavens blue, / When just sev’n stars are shining through, shining through,” reads the caption for a case highlighting Berkeley’s supernova flashes, including its sleeve tattoo on the periodic table of elements, The Play of 1982, and its first female chancellor.

For Kathryn Neal, associate university archivist at The Bancroft Library, arranging the exhibit and puzzling out the captions was “in a way, both a science and an art.”

The Bancroft hallway
Bearing Light: Berkeley at 150 is in Bancroft’s second-floor corridor.

Other exhibit sections focused on Berkeley’s architectural beginnings, the genesis of the university, and the creation of cousin campuses in the University of California system. The case highlighting Cal’s sports teams is captioned, “And once you’ve seen him, you’re all right, / You’ve seen our California Bear,” and tells the legend of Oski — who came into the world wearing a football player’s old shoes, two pairs of marching band pants sewn together, and a face sketched by a Daily Californian cartoonist.

“You can’t have an exhibit on bears without Oski,” Neal said.

The materials for the exhibit, on display through February 1, 2019, were pulled from The Bancroft Library’s collections and the University Archives. While digging through the collection, Neal stumbled on a trove of photographs by Jenne Mowry, better known as the longtime illustrator behind the campus’s Welcome Week posters. The photos give charming glimpses of students in their dorms, Chancellor Carol Christ when she was a professor, and former Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien hanging out on Sproul Plaza.

“That was surprising and a delight to find,” said Neal, who worked on Mowry’s original Welcome Week poster collection. “It’s a fairly small collection, but it’s very rich, too.”

Neal spent months sifting through and arranging material for the exhibit with help from José Adrián Barragán-Álvarez, Bancroft’s Curator of Latin Americana. Together with graphic designer Alison Wannamaker, the team chose a bright mix of newspaper clippings, yearbook photos, posters, state documents, photographs, and maps that are both striking and informative.

“We could plaster the entire building with really boring-looking documents that are very important, but they wouldn’t stop you,” Barragán-Álvarez said. “It has to be something that would stop people in their tracks.”

Details of one caseDetails of second case
Items in the Bearing Light exhibit include newspaper clippings, archival photographs, illustrations, and state documents.

One such paralyzing moment is the exhibit case highlighting demonstrations on campus during the 1960s, with posters rallying people for protests and illustrations mocking the university police and administration. Also included is a copy of former Gov. Ronald Reagan’s 1969 order to send in the California Army National Guard to subdue protesters.

The exhibit title, Bearing Light, unites the campus’s mascot, the golden bear, to its motto, Fiat Lux — the theme of the university’s sesquicentennial. But it also holds the team’s wish to shine a light on the campus’s past and its students’ fight for social justice, Neal said.

“This is all part of what’s held at Bancroft — it’s the history we get to keep,” Barragán-Álvarez said. “It’s our job to make it available.”