National exhibit in Merced through May

Rocco Bowman, an intern from UC Merced, puts together the latest exhibit,  “The Way We Worked,” at the Merced County Courthouse Museum.
Rocco Bowman, an intern from UC Merced, puts together the latest exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” at the Merced County Courthouse Museum. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

For the first time in almost a decade, a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit has made a stop in Merced. It will open next week.

“The Way We Worked” celebrates 150 years of workers in the U.S., from miners to homemakers and child labor to unions, with scores of photos from the National Archives. The exhibit’s unveiling to the public is free and planned at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Merced County Courthouse Museum, located at 21st and N streets.

The display is interactive, with moving parts, film and music.

“We are very pleased to be able to bring ‘The Way We Worked’ to Merced,” said Sarah Lim, Courthouse Museum director. “It allows our community the opportunity to explore this fascinating aspect of our labor history while celebrating hard-working Americans’ stories of hope, strength, dedication, unity and bravery.”

Lim said Merced is one of five cities to be a stop for the exhibit this year. The Courthouse Museum is part of an organization called the Exhibit Envoy, which helped secure the visit to Merced.

The display explores how work has been a central element in American culture. It traces the many changes that have affected the workforce and work environments beginning about 1857, including the growth of manufacturing and use of technology.

Lim said the exhibit also shows a change in photojournalistic standards, which range from workers posing at their job to candid shots at more modern job sites. Panels from the display show children at work in factories, women filling in when men were at war and the influxes of migrant workers, to name a few.

The audio captures the folk music of workers and unions, whether it’s the 1937 song “Roll the Union On” by John Handcox or 1995’s “De Colores” by Baldemar Velasquez and Aguila Negra.

UC Merced professor Mario Sifuentez, who specializes in labor history, will give a presentation on “The Making of the Working Class” at 6 p.m. at the museum on the exhibit’s opening night.

“I’m going to talk about how work has changed from industrial work to service work,” he said. “And what it means for the labor movement, what it means for unions and what it means for our economy at large.”

Gone are the days when a high school graduate could get a job that was enough to raise a family, he said. More and more workers are employed in the service industry, working in hotels, big-box stores or restaurants. Fast food is no longer just a transitional job for teenagers, he said. Some employees stay at service jobs for decades.

“I don’t know that it’s a bad thing. I don’t know that it’s a good thing,” he said. “I think that it’s different. And I think it’s up to us as Americans, as citizens, as voters to think about what it means.”

“The Way We Worked” is a Museum on Main Street project organized by the Smithsonian Institution. Support for Museum on Main Street has been provided by Congress.

Admission to the museum is always free. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. “The Way We Worked” is set to be on display through the end of May.

For more information about the exhibit, call the museum at (209) 723-2401.