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 collection—plus graphic material loaned by other collectors—is 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 Berkeley—didn’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 Annual Meeting.
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 movements—including 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.