Chamber of Heart and Mystery
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MAH Bids Farewell to the Chamber of Heart and Mystery

Young Writers Program looks for a new home

Word Lab Coordinator Billy Butler with students in the Chamber of Heart and Mystery

Cora X. Crux is moving out. And she’s looking for a new crash pad.

If you have a room to rent, there are a few things you should know about Cora—she won’t be around much, amenities like a bed or a shower aren’t really necessary, she has some weird stuff and she expects to have lots of visitors.

Oh, and she’s also entirely fictional.

Cora is an explorer/adventurer and crypto-zoologist. She’s also the unseen presence at the Chamber of Heart and Mystery, the beguiling, 350-square-foot room of delights at Santa Cruz’s Museum of Art & History. The Chamber is a product of the Young Writers Program, in which visitors of all ages can come and inspect Dr. Crux’s study, a kind of Lemony Snicket-esque closet of antiquated technologies, including old telephones and typewriters—all in the service of inspiring the imaginations of young writers.

This month, after three years at the MAH, the Chamber is packing up and leaving, without a new permanent spot. To mark the occasion, the Young Writers Program will be holding a farewell party on Thursday, July 11 at the MAH, that will also act as a fundraiser to help the Chamber find a new home. The event will feature live music by Coffee Zombie Collective, plus refreshments.

“We are going to have a celebration for the de-installation of the Chamber,” said YWP director Julia Chiapella. “That’s how we’re looking at it: a celebration. Our plan has always been to have a space like 826 Valencia.”

That is a reference to the famous “Pirate Supply Store” retail storefront in San Francisco that serves as the portal for the writing program founded by novelist Dave Eggers and teacher Ninive Calegari. Ideally, Chiapella would love to find a retail space that can serve the same purpose. In the meantime, the artifacts of Dr. Crux will be placed in a new space at Branciforte Middle School.

For the past three years, the Chamber has served as a portal for the Word Lab, the on-site after-school literary program operated by the YWP. The Word Lab will continue on at the MAH without the Chamber. That program has served about 145 students from Mission Hill and Branciforte middle schools, and Harbor and Santa Cruz high schools every year in three separate, nine-week sessions. Also continuing will be the YWP’s in-classroom projects that inspire middle- and high-school students to write poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

“We couldn’t be there forever,” said Chiapella on the Chamber’s exit from the MAH. “Real estate being what it is in Santa Cruz, it’s hard to find a place for a non-profit. So the (July 11 event) will be both a celebration and a call to the community on how we can keep this going, or if we want to keep this going.”

The Chamber has many interactive features and old-school technologies, including story cubes, a magic lantern and a cabinet of curiosities. They are designed to work as writing prompts or otherwise stoke young imaginations, all presented in a rich Edwardian-era aesthetic with no trace of the digital, push-button world that surrounds kids today.

“The kids that come in are absolutely enchanted,” said Chiapella, “and the adults are as well. We have this telephone—we call it a ‘heart phone’—where people pick it up and several things are recorded on it. Some of the things are odd, or zany, or tender, or surreal. It’s been a lovely thing.”

Chiapella worked with Santa Cruz children’s author David Zeltser to establish a place like 826 Valencia in Santa Cruz. And project designers Rebecca Goldman and Carmen Clark conceived of the idea after a visit to the San Francisco site.

“We do get those kids who look around and say, ‘This is stupid,’ and move on. But they are really few and far between,” said Chiapella. “There is an enchanting element to the analog nature of it, at this point. It engages you in a way that’s not directing you necessarily. It doesn’t have that instant gratification quality to it. It demands that you think, slow down, and tell your own story.”  

A celebration of the Chamber of Heart and Mystery will be held Thursday, July 11, 7 to 9 p.m. at the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. $15 general admission. youngwriterssc.org.
Staff Writer at Good Times |

Wallace Baine has been an arts writer, film critic, columnist and editor in Santa Cruz for more than 25 years. He is the author of “A Light in the Midst of Darkness,” a cultural history of the independent bookseller Bookshop Santa Cruz, as well as the book “Rhymes with Vain: Belabored Humor and Attempted Profundity,” and the story collection “The Last Temptation of Lincoln.” He is a staff writer for Good Times, Metro Silicon Valley and San Benito/South Valley magazine.

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