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Making A (Small) Splash

October 1, 2008

There's an art to knowing how to tackle a museum. The massive civic institutions that grace most major cities around the world, from The Prado to The Met, are overwhelming and exhausting to many visitors.

If you happen to live in a city with a big museum, you can buy a membership and enjoy seeing the institution bit by bit. You can pop in and out in a lunch-break. You never have to wear out your soles by attempting to "do" the whole museum in one visit.

But if you're a tourist and feel like you have to get around the museum in one day, you're likely to experience burn out. In an effort to create a manageable experience, you might choose to ignore the permanent collection and simply take in the traveling show. This is a shame as it's the permanent collection that defines an institution, not the celebrity exhibit that flirts with several organizations on its way around the world.

With the above in mind, it's gratifying, on occasion, to spend time in a small museum. I was reminded of this only yesterday when I visited Santa Cruz's tiny Surfing Museum. In only 30 minutes, I'd pretty much covered the whole place and walked out into the sunshine feeling like I'd learned many new and wonderful things about the local surf culture. Set in an old lighthouse on a cliff overlooking one of the laid-back California coastline's legendary surfing areas, "Steamer Lane", the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum traces around 100 years of Santa Cruz surfing history and provides some background on the genesis of the sport from 15th century Hawaii to the California shoreline.

The museum is housed in a tiny single room, about the size of a generous stall in a public bathroom. Not an inch of space is wasted. Photographs of famous local surfers adorn the walls. Massive, old fashioned wooden boards (some weighing 100 lbs or more) tower over us like totem poles. There's a video featuring interviews with members of the surfing community and an elaborate faux-beach display created to show off an innovative wetsuit designed by Jack O'Neill (the founder of the O'Neill surf gear company.) The museum even houses a gift shop.

Other surf museums such as the International Surfing Museum at Huntington Beach, might have more extensive collections. But there's something rather wonderful about walking out of a museum without feeling frazzled. In this way, the museum perfectly embodies the zenful surfing spirit.

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