A tale of two museums

The Presidio Trust's choice between the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center and the Disney Museum speaks volumes about what's happening in San Francisco's national park

The Presidio, converted from military to civilian use 12 years ago, has six million square feet of former officers’ quarters, barracks, and buildings that make it unlike any other national park in the country.
This public space has become home to a mixed bag of occupants — primarily private citizens, a smattering of nonprofit organizations, and an increasing number of commercial enterprises — as the Presidio Trust pursues a controversial congressional mandate to be financially self-sustaining.
Two different museums have also vied for residence at the site of the park's Main Post: the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center (CIMCC) and the Disney Museum. Both submitted viable proposals for exhibition space, representing starkly different futures for the Presidio.
This is the story of how one may get to stay and the other just had to go. This is also the story of how the Presidio Trust is transforming a prized national park into just another piece of real estate to be claimed by the highest bidder.
In Presidio Trust literature, the Main Post is called the "heart of the Presidio." The centrally located seven-acre parcel includes an enormous parking lot surrounded by dozens of buildings that provide a steady stream of traffic pumping through the arteries of Presidio Boulevard and Doyle Drive. If you were hoping to attract a regular flow of visitors to your museum, the Main Post would be an ideal place to put it.
Photographs of classic Presidio architecture usually show the northwestern edge of the Main Post where Buildings 103 and 104 are a stately couple among a quintuplet of identical four-story brick structures. They are now empty, except for some temporary office space. Approximately 44,000 square feet each, the historic barracks were built between 1895 and 1897 to accommodate troops returning from frontier battles during the conquest of Native American tribes.
When the National Park Service was handed the Presidio in 1995, the CIMCC became one of the first "park partners" to set up office. For almost two years, the museum negotiated with the park service to lease additional space for the first living museum of Native American culture in California.
The museum planners took a shine to Building 103, paid for a $44,000 renovation study, and kicked off the necessary fundraising with a $2 million allocation from then–Senate president pro tem Bill Lockyer. Joseph Myers, a Pomo Indian, lawyer, and chairman of the CIMCC Board of Directors, said there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project.
"Even when we just had office space here we had international visitors wandering through, wondering when there would be a museum here," he said.
Things were looking hopeful, and on Sept. 21, 1996, the Presidio, originally home of the Ohlone tribe, hosted a formal dedication of the return of a Native American presence to the park. Then-mayor Willie Brown attended the ceremony and pledged his support to the project.
Not long after, the Presidio's power structure radically shifted. The park was split into two areas, with Area A along the waterfront managed by the park service and the inland Area B and the bulk of its buildings, including the Main Post, managed by the Presidio Trust — the result of a newfangled proposal by Rep. Nancy Pelosi that won acceptance in a Republican-controlled Congress.
The Presidio is the first national park with a mandate to pay its own way; the trust’s finances are governed by a board of seven presidential designees — initially chaired by downtown-friendly Toby Rosenblatt and including Gap founder Donald Fisher. The new landlords informed the CIMCC that all real estate negotiations were on hold.
"We tried very hard to convince them we would be good tenants," Myers told the Guardian. "The Presidio is originally one of the places where Indians suffered at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. They were tortured and killed for not being good slaves.