Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History metamorphoses into a private-public partnership.
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Consider it a small-town crisis averted, or an eco-arts revival. However you slice it, the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History’s comeback is all the more dramatic considering the 125-year-old landmark was on life support a year ago.
With a new mission, a new business model, a new director and a $230,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the museum has reinvented itself.
As museum staffers on temporary loan from the Monterey Bay Aquarium exit stage left, a cadre of more than 20 volunteers poise to enter stage right. Monthly training sessions are helping build the docent ranks, and a student volunteer program is set to begin in the fall.
Buoyed by a wave of community support, museum leaders now plan a phased renovation of the building and exhibits. Local architecture firm Wald, Ruhnke & Dost, which designed an addition to the museum in the 1980s, is working on concept and revitalization studies. Plans are underway for a number of eco-friendly projects, such as a cistern installation by local environmental group Sustainable Pacific Grove.
The museum will cooperate with local science institutes to offer community education activities such as public lectures, family field trips and science camps, according to museum Interim Director Bob Snyder. Other partnerships underscore the museum’s renewed focus on education. The museum worked with the Monterey Regional Park District to offer art programs this summer, and it will host science classes for Pacific Grove students beginning in September. Students with the California State University-Monterey Bay Service Learning Institute will join the fold in October.
A new science lab for students– made possible by donations from the Jefferson and Francis Larkey Memorial Fund and The Pete Menghetti family– will augment the science curricula at local schools.
“We’ve made some significant headway,” Snyder says. “We’ve got some people excited about the museum’s future, and we’re feeling like this can be done.”
Over the past year, the financially floundering city of Pacific Grove has dramatically reduced the museum’s financial support, in effect directing it to find its own revenue source. The budget cuts initially tasted like bitter medicine to museum supporters, who didn’t want to start charging admission fees. But without a new source of revenue, the museum faced extinction.
A visit in early January found the place devoid of visitors, with one lonesome volunteer staffing the customer-less gift shop. The director had retired, the assistant curator had been laid off and a part-time employee had quit. Stuffed mammals sat in glass display cases, empty rooms reflected in their beady black eyes.
But an 11th-hour influx of support gave the museum a grace period. A Packard Foundation grant in January provided the money to hire Snyder, who launched the strategic planning process in February. The Monterey Bay Aquarium lent guest-service staff to help fill the labor vacuum through the end of June.
Snyder, a retired FBI-agent-cum-school-superintendent, didn’t have an easy task. “It’s frustrating when you take an organization that is struggling and try to move it forward, because most people think it can’t be done,” he says.
In March, museum supporters held a planning retreat to brainstorm strategies to sustain the museum over the long term. The process gave birth to several new groups: Scientist Friends of the Museum, to help develop educational programs; the Exhibits Review Committee, to recommend changes to permanent exhibits; and the Museum Association, to develop and fund temporary exhibits.
In June, the City Council approved the museum’s new mission statement and goals, including formation of a charitable foundation to take financial responsibility for operations. The city’s general fund will provide $152,000 in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, but payment of the bulk of the museum’s $521,000 annual costs will come from grants and other contributions.
Thus begins the museum’s transition from a city-funded institute, with the council serving as the governing board, into a public-private partnership. A museum foundation will manage operations beginning in July 2010, while the city retains ownership of the building and collections.
Another Packard Foundation gift– $230,000, granted in June– makes up for the city’s budget cut and then some, Snyder says. The Packard money, which may be renewed next year, has enabled the museum to create four new positions: a part-time curator, a director, an education coordinator and an administrative assistant.
Snyder finishes his term in early August, leaving the museum with a strategic business plan and a healthy bank account. But whether the museum can sustain itself independent of the city remains to be seen. It’s a make-it-or-break-it moment for the museum.
P.G. resident Lori Mannel, currently director of CSUMB’s Osher Lifelong Learning Center, takes over as museum director on Aug. 25. “The museum is a jewel. It’s a treasure,” she gushes. “It has an incredible collection, and we really want to honor that past and preserve the history of the museum while moving into the new stage.”
The museum has always focused on Monterey County’s natural history, conservation and public education. It’s a popular field-trip destination for students and meeting place for a half-dozen local organizations. It boasts the biggest collection of displayed birds on the Central Coast, including an endangered condor. Its annual wildflower show shines a spotlight on local flora; and its archives preserve some 1,000 photos of P.G.’s olden days.
Now it will broaden its reach. “The new direction is really emphasizing the unique and diverse natural history of the Central Coast,” Mannel says. “We see ourselves taking a leadership position in the interpretation of natural events that will inform us for the future.”
Mannel envisions exhibits on the Big Sur wildfires, the endangered migration of the monarch butterfly and the fragmentation of mountain lion habitat. “Those are the stories that we need to highlight,” she says. “When you understand the history of our natural resources, you can understand the events that are happening today, and it can inform our future decisions.”
The new director marvels at the progress the museum has made, considering talk of closure a year ago. “For it to be reinvented and reborn in a way that’s going to add so much more value to the entire Central Coast community– that alone is very exciting,” Mannel says.
P.G. Mayor Dan Cort shares her enthusiasm. “The city is rising to the occasion. Folks are rolling up their sleeves and recognizing what we need to be like in the future,” he says. “The city, whether we like it or not, is going to rely on endowments and volunteerism. I think this model will lift our museum to a higher level.”
The museum will host a community open house to celebrate its new direction and introduce Director Lori Mannel. Saturday, Aug. 23, noon-3pm. 165 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove. Free. 648-5716, www.pgmuseum.org. To volunteer, email email@example.com