Museum Exhibit Explores Transformative Power of California Disasters

By February 27, 2024Press Releases

LOS ALTOS, CA (Feb 27, 2024) Four years ago on March 14, citizens of California received word to shelter in place due to the spread of COVID-19. That experience demonstrated how quickly epidemics can affect our daily lives. The impact of natural and manmade disasters is the subject of Los Altos History Museum’s new exhibit titled From Earthquakes to Epidemics: How Disasters Transform California’s People and Places.” The exhibit, on view from March 14, 2024 to May 12, 2024, examines major events in California’s history and how disasters have inspired positive changes within our communities.


“As we witness a growing number of natural disasters, it became important to shed light on the broader implications,” said Exhibits Specialist Jordan Grealish. “This extends not only to epidemics but also to the evolving world around us.”


The exhibit explores historic droughts, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, and pandemics in California, addressing the frequency and intensity due to the acceleration of climate change. Using art, history, and science, it gives context to the impacts of recent and historic disasters in the Golden State.


Despite challenges, disasters also serve as catalysts for societal reform, inspiring positive changes. The exhibit highlights developments in public health policies, emergency preparedness plans, and ongoing environmental and social advocacy efforts, showcasing Californians’ resilience and determination to create a better future. The Museum hopes that visitors will leave the exhibit feeling inspired and empowered to take action in their own communities.


“We need to prepare for disasters, but also foster a sense of community, because the best way to get through things like this is by working together,” said Grealish.


In response to the COVID pandemic, the Museum began collecting artifacts and materials from the community, capturing people’s experiences. Many of these items, including painted rocks, oral histories, and the evolution of masks, will be on display.


The exhibit also delves into the often-overlooked stories of Californians significantly affected by disasters due to factors like location, socioeconomic status, and race. Examples, such as the fight to save San Francisco’s Chinatown following the 1906 Earthquake and the East Porterville drought leaving low-income families without running water, illustrate how disasters uniquely impact marginalized communities.


Programs related to the exhibit include:


Understanding Silicon Valley’s Workforce Issues: A Conversation with Reporter Ethan Baron,” a discussion with Museum Teen Docents on how the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in H-1B visas have caused changes in our local economy. March 21, 5:30-7pm.


The Los Altos Story: The Impact of the Rotary AIDS Project,” a screening of The Rotary Club of Los Altos’ Peabody Award-winning film “The Los Altos Story,” highlighting the club’s efforts to spread awareness about the AIDS crisis. April 18, 5:30-7pm.


Admission for each program is $15/person, and registration is required through the Museum’s website.


“From Earthquakes to Epidemics” is a traveling exhibition from Exhibit Envoy and has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Local presentation of this exhibition is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Los Altos in celebration of its 75th anniversary and its work tackling global epidemics.


To learn more about the exhibit, visit


Los Altos History Museum began in 1977 with the opening of the historic J. Gilbert Smith House, built in 1905 on 14+ acres of apricot orchards planted by Mr. Smith. In 2001, Los Altos History Museum opened the modern building next door, which houses the Museum’s collections, permanent and changing exhibitsstore and administrative offices. The Museum and its grounds are available for rent during evenings and weekends. Its collections are owned by the City of Los Altos and are managed by an independent nonprofit organization, whose staff and volunteers are responsible for all programs and operations.


The Museum is open Thursday through Sunday, from noon-4pm. Admission is free. Tours of the J. Gilbert Smith House are available during open hours. The outdoor agricultural exhibit, gardens and picnic area are accessible beyond Museum hours. For more information, visit:, email, or phone 650.948.9427 x14.


Los Altos History Museum: Elisabeth I. Ward, 650.948.9427 x10,