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 Stories for May 6, 1998:

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Photographs Reveal Lost Cemetery
Beneath San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Lay a Forgotten Graveyard of the Poor, Until a Renovation and Expansion Unearthed the Past

by Sunny Merik, Public Affairs
posted May. 6, 1998

When renovations began on the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 1992, little did anyone think that a macabre world would be unearthed. But as floors were raised and earth removed, human bones began to surface.

Beneath the stately Corinthian and Ionic columns of the “palace” designed for exhibiting European art and culture, lay the remains of 750 burials – bones and skeletons and redwood caskets – a “potters’ field” of the poor.

Photographer Richard Barnes, ’79, who captured the mystery of the Legion of Honor discovery in haunting black-and-white photographs, will discuss his “Still Rooms & Excavations” exhibit at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 14, at Hearst Museum. His presentation, which is free, is part of California Archaeology Week.

“I’m captivated by the idea of the existence of a past that refuses to depart completely,” says Barnes, “but instead lies buried, quietly insisting, with the help of archaeologists, to interrupt the seeming continuum of our collective present.”

For those who view Barnes’s photographs, the juxtaposition of Neoclassical architecture and human skulls and ribs inevitably form the question: is this a museum or a mausoleum?

Barnes, who studied fine art at Berkeley, then changed his major and graduated with a degree in journalism, brings both sensibilities to his “Still Rooms & Excavations” exhibition.

Although the forgotten graveyard and its anonymous cadavers were supposed to be relocated to South San Francisco decades ago, apparently only their headstones made the move.

Barnes sees his Legion of Honor photographic presentation as a continuation of eight years of work in Egypt and Lebanon, photographing archaeological excavations.

“While working at the Legion of Honor I was struck by the apparent contradiction of a museum that both preserves and erases,” he said. “How does an institution determine what is to be saved and (thus) validated, and what is to be discarded and forgotten? Whose past is worthy of collection and preservation, and whose is expendable, and why?”

The forgotten graveyard for poor laborers of Chinese, French and other ethnic backgrounds contains a wealth of lost history and forgotten stories.

Barnes’s elegant photographs remind us of this fact.

“Still Rooms & Excavations” has been exhibited at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts and San Francisco Camerawork and featured in San Francisco Examiner Magazine.

For information on Barnes’s talk, call Laurie Reyes at (510) 643-7648, ext. 3.

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