The River Runs Through it—Junipero Serra Museum Welcome Center

C&G Partners (New York) recently completed a special project for the San Diego History Center: the Junípero Serra Welcome Center. Completed with funding from the San Diego River Conservancy and State Coastal Conservancy, the Junípero Serra Welcome Center features the river as protagonist.


The Source
The San Diego History Center, a Smithsonian affiliate, operates two museums on behalf of the city of San Diego in two historic districts: the San Diego History Center and Research Archives in Balboa Park and the Junípero Serra Museum in Presidio Park. Architect William Templeton Johnson designed the Junípero Serra Museum for San Diego Historical Society founder and noted philanthropist, businessman and civic leader George W. Marston in 1928.

Located on a hill overlooking Mission Valley and two major highways, the Mission Revival-style building is often mistaken for the original San Diego mission. The Mission San Diego de Alcalá, established in 1769 and Royal Presidio, however, are covered archaeological sites and represent the first European settlement in what has subsequently become the State of California.

The San Diego River and its watershed is a primary reason that both the native Kumeyaay peoples and the Spanish missionaries settled in the area. “The river has been the giver of life, if you will, throughout the ages,” explains Bill Lawrence, executive director of the San Diego History Center. “It has been the center of the many cultures that have called the region home since prehistory.”

The Serra Museum, while important to the city’s history, was underutilized and in need of updating in 2010 when Lawrence (then a board member) and the Board of Trustees made the decision to start the process of renewing the facilities and exhibitions. A key area of opportunity was a small room serving double duty as an admissions area and museum store that was originally an office used by Marston. The new function for the office would be as a welcome center to the Serra Museum and Presidio Park, offering an overview of the site’s history.

In many ways, the environment is part of the space. The approximately 400-square-foot historic office has three windows that overlook the San Diego River watershed and surrounding area. When the project began, security screens blocked the view. “Part of the process was removing that and opening the view while maintaining security,” remembers Lawrence. “It changes the space tremendously.”

The key partner for this project has been the San Diego River Conservancy which has the interpretation of the river’s history as part of its charter. In 2010, Lawrence was introduced to the Executive Officer for the San Diego River Conservancy and “We thought there would be a really good synergistic collaboration between our two organizations in the telling of the story of San Diego around its namesake river—that was the genesis of the project,” says Lawrence.

The first phase of the larger project was the development of an interpretive plan, for which the History Center did a nationwide search for exhibition design firms, finding and selecting C&G Partners (New York), a firm which already had a relationship to San Diego, the eighth largest city in the country. The concept for the welcome center exhibition simultaneously was a unique and completely apropos: The San Diego River would function as protagonist—a “timeless” narrator who conveys the history of the land, the building and the culture of the area in a time when water conservation and access is at the forefront of civic dialogues.

The concept presented a perfect opportunity to honor primary sponsorship from the San Diego River Conservancy and State Coastal Conservancy. “When the SDRC came forward as a sponsor for this project, placing the river as the protagonist in the story became especially fitting, because you can see the river and most of the watershed from the site,” says Keith Helmetag, principal at C&G Partners. “It’s an interesting way to tell what might seem like divergent and, in some cases, controversial stories together with one outlook.”


While minimal user research was conducted for the exhibition design portion of the project, the interpretive plan portion began with workshops where numerous community members and stakeholders helped inform the overall interpretive approach. The all-volunteer advisory committee consisted of research anthropologists; historians; geologists; urban planners; and members of the local architectural community, San Diego History Center, San Diego River Park Foundation, San Diego River Conservancy, one of the native Kumeyaay nations; and other valuable stakeholders from within the San Diego community.

Prior to Spanish, Mexican and American colonization, the Kumeyaay territory spanned 75 miles north and south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Prior to 1770, the Kumeyaay nation’s population is estimated at greater than 80,000, but colonial contact brought disease, warfare and social conditions that resulted in a population reduction of more than 96 percent by 1910. Descendants of these native peoples, as well as descendants of the early Spanish, Mexican and American settlers, continue to inhabit the region today,

“The interaction between these cultures and the ongoing effects is absolutely a discussion that needs to be had and one that the San Diego History Center, as an organization, embraces,” says Lawrence. “In fact, we will be hosting a public educational series on Kumeyaay history with the  Kuymeyaay Heritage Preservation Committee and Kumeyaay Community College. We are very excited partner with this and other native organizations to hear the history and experiences of the Kumeyaay and other native peoples as they wish their history to be told”

Input from the region’s Kumeyaay community was incorporated into the exhibit and a member of the community served as a curatorial consultant to the project. However, some members of native communities at the exhibition opening adamantly voiced the importance of incorporating more of their people’s history into future displays.

As part of the second phase of the museum renewal project, the History Center will be working closely with the San Diego River Conservancy and its partner the Kumeyaay Digueño Land Conservancy as well as the Kumeyaay Heritage Preservation Committee.


The Welcome Center’s displays are integrated with the exterior vista, addressing the Serra Museum and Presidio Park in concert, serving as an executive summary of the rest of the museum space’s forthcoming exhibits. The 1,200-square-foot main gallery and five-story tower exhibits will recount the story of the region in greater depth—from Kumeyaay society and Spanish colonization to the Mexican and American periods.

For the Welcome Center, the museum staff, under the direction of noted San Diego historian, Iris Engstrand, P.h.D. and Lawrence drove the content process, assembling text, images and video and developing a narrative arc for the exhibition. “The river is the continuing historical thread through that ties it all together and that will continue in the rest of the exhibits,” says Helmetag.

Just outside the Welcome Center, panels in both English and Spanish describe and contextualize the surrounding landscape. Inside, the interpretive narratives—Native People; Birthplaces of California and San Diego; Presidio Park; The River, Past and Present—were mapped on to the four walls and available niches. “One of our ideas for the space was to try to allow the architecture to be more visible than it had been,” remembers Helmetag. “So the niches and openings seemed like logical places to put content.”

The three media niches are reminiscent of two windows and a door. In a LED niche on the northern wall, historical photographs of the Kumeyaay community from the History Center’s archives are featured. On the opposite wall, the window niche presents the establishment of Presidio Park and the History Center. The third niche has sound, telling the archaeological story of the Presidio site using a three-minute-long documentary film clip.

At the center of the space, the design team placed a media centerpiece reminiscent of wells and fountains found in Spanish architecture. The Helmetag-dubbed “Oculus Well” is a full-sized video projection that follows the path of the San Diego River from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean in popular Dog Beach. “The Oculus Well media installation introduces the San Diego River as a character in the exhibit narrative through conceptual and video art with very limited labeling, which is unique for a History Museum,” says Helmetag. It also plays ambient sounds recorded at the river: human, freeway, water and even dog sounds.

Throughout, the typographic treatment—which uses both underlining and undulating lines—ties back to the idea of the river within the brand guidelines of the client.


The Mouth
The museum is now embarking on the second phase of the renewal project, with the Welcome Center exhibit acting as an ambassador to visitors in addition to helping build support and raise funding.

“As the Serra Museum grounds are used extensively for events, this welcome center exhibit acts as an important emissary for a huge community who might be there for another reason, but nevertheless get to hear the story through these media displays,” says Helmetag. “That is valuable.”

The client and design teams are proud of the result of their collaboration with the passionate San Diego community. “I especially love that this project increased exhibition space, as opposed to dedicating that space to administrative functions of the museum,” remarks Lawrence.


Client: San Diego History Center
Location: San Diego, Calif.
Open Date: July 27, 2017
Project Area: 400 sq ft
Exhibition Design: C&G Partners
Design Team: Keith Helmetag (exhibition & media design principal-in-charge); Fabio Gherardi (art direction and exhibition design); Irina Koryagina (media map design concept); Daniel Guillermo Rodriguez and Melinda Sekela (media map visual design); Koble Delmer (graphic design)
Fabrication: Exhibitology
Collaborators: Video: Video Approach, Mark Bryce, Devon Bryce
San Diego River Conservancy: Ben Clay, Chair; Ruth Hayward, Vice Chair; Julia Richards, Executive Officer
San Diego History Center: Dr. Iris Engstrand, Historian; Michael Connolly-Miskwish, Kumeyaay Historian; Thompson Fetter, President; William Lawrence, Executive Director; Keith Busy, Exhibitions Manager

Photos: Christine Travers, Natalie Fiocre, au2026 (Photographers); International Color Services (Retouchers)

Note: Funding for this exhibition is provided by the San Diego River Conservancy and State Coastal Conservancy through Proposition 84 the Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006.