Napa County Historical Society’s - Sheli Smith
By Craig Smith
Ask Dr. Sheli Smith for an interview and you’re in for a treat. She’s the Executive Director of the Napa County Historical Society and an anthropologist whose current focus is Napa, so you’ll get tidbits of Napa history that you wouldn’t get from somebody else. For example, asked how long her family has lived in Napa, she answers, “My grandfather, A.V. Smith, moved here and bought the stone mason business on Third Street next door to the fairgrounds in 1924. Newman & Wing, the original owners, built a lot of the bridges and buildings in town, as well as a lot of the mausoleums in Tulocay Cemetery. The first thing my grandfather did was move the business a block away to its current location on Silverado Trail at Five Points.”
It makes for a much more interesting interview.
Sheli knew she wanted to be an anthropologist from the time she was twelve. Her father was a geologist and spent years in Brazil. When Sheli was fourteen, her parents sent her to Haiti and South America to live with relatives. “People everywhere in the world develop their culture by where they live. It’s fascinating,” she said. She attended Siena High School (“Before it was Justin-Siena,” she points out) and the nuns encouraged her to pursue her passion.
She did her undergraduate work at University of Arizona, in part because her parents wanted their kids to attend a college at least 200 miles from home. As an anthropology major, students can pursue four tracks, one of which is archeology. She did a semester in Greece, and there met three women who became mentors. “This was in the seventies, and I’d never known women to sit down with martinis and talk archaeology.” Like the nuns from Siena, they encouraged her, warning that her life wasn’t going to be easy entering “a man’s world.” Sheli was interested in underwater archeology as a scientific illustrator. “It was definitely a field dominated by men, but I can draw,” she said with a smile. Her graduate studies were at Texas A&M, and she did her PhD work at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has taken her all over the world. The only sea she hasn’t been in is the China Sea. “Yet,” she adds.
In 2005, Sheli got an opportunity to open an independent R&D educational facility in Columbus, Ohio, the mission of which was to develop new methods to engage teachers and kids to learn. The benefactor promised three years of support and funding, and it was too good for Sheli to refuse. She ended up staying until 2020, then decided it was time to move to Napa to be with family.
“I offered to volunteer for the Historical Society at Goodman Library, and told them I’d clean floors or anything else they needed, but pointed out that I had forty years of museum experience.” Interim Executive Director, Liz Alessio, asked her to mentor her and to join the board. In 2021, Liz was ready to leave and Sheli became the Executive Director. The organization pursues a variety of funding sources, including rentals, memberships, grants, and sponsors. Sheli got to add to that right away by opening a gift shop, “Something that’s been on everybody’s to-do list for twenty years.”
“In some ways, I feel like a politician who’s at the end of their last term in office and no longer puts off what they want to do,” said Sheli. What she wants is to establish a network among all the museums in the valley, and to make the Historical Society a well-known show piece. “It takes a village to get this done, but the support is there.” She also has what she calls “a strong exhibit habit,” and will make sure the Museum does two interesting and intriguing exhibits a year. She feels an obligation to tell everyone’s story. To that end, they are hosting a “Hilos Visibles” (Visible Threads) this coming fall. The exhibit will showcase the Napa County Hispanic Network Quilt Project. “It’s beautiful work, an insight into someone’s life and an important part of our collective culture.” Other goals may seem quirky but appeal to her, such as reviving the Firemen’s Corn Booth. “That was always my first stop at the Fairgrounds! It is iconic Napa.”
Attendance at the Historical Society increased from 5,000 to 17,000 in Sheli’s year. Some of it has been from exhibits, talks and other out reaches and through social media, and some of it has been more basic. “We put an ‘Open’ sign on the door. We get twenty people a week walking in saying they never knew we were here.”
The Napa County Historical Society is in the Goodman Library at 1219 First Street, across the street from Archer Hotel. They are open Wednesday through Saturday in the winter, and will open back up to five days, Tuesday through Saturday, with the change to Daylight Savings Time. If you have a question or want to share a story, you can contact Sheli and her team at napahistory.org.