Cuts to P.G. Museum of Natural History would accomplish little.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
A lot of feet have walked around (and on top of) Sandy, a life-size sculpture of a gray whale, on their way into the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. But this experience, like the condors pictured inside PGNHM, has become endangered.
Budget cuts in Butterflytown USA threaten to suck the life out of the museum. A recent decision to not shut down the museum doesn’t necessarily stem the years of bloodletting – it only disguises it.
The ninth-oldest scientific institution on the West Coast, the museum got its start in 1883. Its exhibits have enriched generations in a region of the world renowned for its natural history.
The museum’s collection includes 30,000 cataloged objects – such as 400-plus birds, representing 291 species, which is the largest collection of birds on display from Santa Barbara to beyond San Francisco, not to mention the hundreds of other critters. The museum even has a rare California condor specimen named Gypsy.
“IF WE CHARGE ADMISSION, WE WILL LOSE A HUGE CHUNK OF OUR ATTENDANCE.”
“The new condor exhibit is one of the best anywhere. It is a beautiful tribute that tells the story of the efforts to bring back our largest bird from the brink of extinction,” says John Moir, a speaker at the exhibit’s unveiling and author of Return of the Condor, a book chronicling the condors’ plight.
“The museum is a vital link for people of all ages and backgrounds to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the Monterey Bay area’s rich natural environment,” he adds. “It’s hard to imagine the area without it.”
The museum attracts world-class rotating exhibits such as Wildcats of the World – the first time anywhere that paintings of all 37 species of wildcats in their natural settings were on display together, from lions to ocelots to lynxes to tabby cats. Norbert Wu’s critically acclaimed Under the Antarctic Ice is another of the special exhibits that premiered here.
In additional to its annual wildflower show, which showcases more than 700 species, the museum provides community space for regular meetings of organizations such as the National Audubon Society, California Native Plant Society and Carmel Gem and Mineral Society.
Teachers praise the museum, and for good reason. About 7,000 students a year attend educational programs tailored to their studies in science and natural history, or about a class a day. Here, they get hands-on time with fossils, bones, shells, and real specimens. Students touch history by handling local Native-American artifacts.
The free admission allows access for cash-strapped schools, including some that resort to using public bus lines because they can’t afford to use school buses.
Karen Levy, a teacher at Robert Down Elementary School who has brought her science classes to the museum since 1988, believes there is much more the museum could offer. “Because of the budget, they’ve been very limited in what they can do,” she says.
Now is a time when an understanding and consciousness of science never has been more critical. But this vital part of the community is taken for granted because it has always been there. As Pacific Grove wrestles with the budget cuts, the museum faces extinction – but not in a direct and open way. The city is not “shutting the doors,” but it is slowly and steadily withdrawing support.
Ron Kettlewell was the museum’s education assistant, but during the last round of downsizing, these responsibilities were rolled into his current position as assistant curator. The staff has dwindled from four to two. With the museum director’s retirement in December and Kettlewell’s job on the chopping block, that leaves a staff of exactly zero.
In the past, the staff had resisted charging admission.
“If we charge admission, we know absolutely that we will lose a huge chunk of our annual attendance,” Kettlewell says. “It’s going to drop from 60,000 to 20,000 or 15,000 or 10,000. Who knows where the bottom is.
“The amount of money we would bring in at the door charging admission would be so paltry compared to the damage that it would do to our core mission.”
Without staff and financial backing, the museum will wither from neglect. Three months from now, six, or even a year, will the city will come back and say, “Look, no one is coming. We might as well shut it down, right?”
Nonprofits already pay for operating exhibits at the museum. The city only pays for the building’s costs and staff salaries. If it would be closed, the city would not be saving anywhere near the amount it thinks because of laws and regulations governing the handling of a collection that it has not properly considered, such as the care of Native American remains.
No decisions are going to be easy to solve Pacific Grove’s budget crisis. But to shut down the museum by one fell swoop or with a thousands cuts would save little money and exact a huge toll.