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Saturday, October 23, 2021

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Seth Mallios Seth Mallios

SDSU Anthropology Professor Named University History Curator

Seth Mallios digs up the university’s past from pop-culture trivia to significant historical milestones.
By Jill Esterbrooks

“Throughout its 120-year history, SDSU has reflected the social and cultural diversity of the greater San Diego community.”

Buried in a basement lab in Hardy Memorial Tower is a trove of treasures and trinkets that tell the colorful history of San Diego State University, and the city where the campus calls home.

There’s a ticket stub from President John F. Kennedy’s commencement address at Aztec Bowl in 1963, and a photo of Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead band playing at SDSU’s outdoor venue in 1969, just months before the Woodstock Music Festival.

Boxed on a shelf are photos of jerseys dating back to the first basketball team in 1921—a hand-me-down from the baseball squad—alongside a dance trophy from the Blue Book Ball held after finals in the 1950s and ‘60s. And it’s hard to overlook the large weather vane from the roof of the President’s House when it was occupied by Malcolm Love—the Love Library’s namesake.
This eclectic assemblage has been culled over the years by SDSU anthropology professor Seth Mallios. Since joining the faculty more than 20 years ago, Mallios has been the unofficial gatekeeper of SDSU artifacts and antiques.  

“I came from the University of Virginia where there’s lots of history and tons of historians,” said Mallios. “When I arrived here two decades ago, I found there was plenty of static SDSU history but no one was telling our stories.”

Then-President Stephen Weber challenged Mallios to “dig deeper and find things out”—both cultural trivia (more than 8,000 musical acts from Bob Marley to Lady Gaga have performed at SDSU) and significant historical milestones (from the women’s safe house created in the early twentieth century with a gift from Ellen Browning Scripps to the famous campus speech by Martin Luther King Jr.).  

Newly named curator

Earlier this month, SDSU Provost and Senior Vice President Chukuka S. Enwemeka announced that Mallios had been appointed as the official university history curator.

While the university has both formal library archivists and informal exhibitors of lore and legend, in this new position Mallios will be charged with not only collecting and protecting, but also and more importantly, interpreting objects of historical and aesthetic importance.       

“Seth has more than 20 years of academic, research and leadership experience,” said Enwemeka. “He has published nine books (with a 10th underway), dozens of articles and garnered nearly $2 million in more than 80 extramural grants, contracts and awards.”

In addition, he noted that Mallios has been instrumental in multiple public-history projects on campus, including restoration of six historic murals, three historic plaques and many anniversary events and cultural celebrations.

Digging up stuff from the past

With a deep fascination for cemeteries and stories from the dead, Mallios has been unearthing artifacts that have long resided on campus as well as dusting off relics that have been stored in the garages and attics of faculty, staff and alumni.

He credits the campus’ physical plant crew with several major discoveries, including two Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era murals from the 1930s, long thought to have been destroyed, that were uncovered in Hardy Memorial Tower in 2004.  

They also revealed a Cold War bomb shelter beneath the old administration building. “There were all these things necessary to survive in case of nuclear attack, including food, water, sanitation and medical supplies like penicillin,” said Mallios.

In his history book “Hail Montezuma: The Hidden Treasures of San Diego State,” Mallios researched and examined at least a thousand SDSU-related items.  

But he knows there are thousands (or perhaps millions) of other stories to tell about SDSU’s history and the important role it has played in the development of the region. These include the college’s first home in the Normal School Building in the University Heights neighborhood of San Diego, its role in the planning and participation in the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park and playing host to epic rock-n-roll concerts on campus venues since the 1960s.

“Throughout its 120-year history, SDSU has reflected the social and cultural diversity of the greater San Diego community,” said Mallios.   

From wartimes when campus was used to train women pilots to student protests against the Vietnam War to today’s students who are developing tools to battle cybersecurity threats, Mallios is passionate about telling the SDSU story through “things” found.  

“These artifacts might not be the gold coins of an Indiana Jones archaeologist, but they are a gold mine to help us record and tell our history,” he said.  

Now, if someone out there has a football signed by members of the 1966 undefeated team, dust it off and hand it over to the university history curator to add to the basement collection.