Changing Course

PGMNH Executive Director Carla Bitter at the exhibit Changes, about climate change. She credits the staff for rethinking how to best make use of the museum’s collection.

If the walls could speak at Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, they’d have a lot to say. The museum has been open since 1883 to house the preserved natural wonders of the area, originally so that the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific societies could study them. But museums, and how people use them, are changing.

In 2016, the board of the museum took note in a five-year plan outlining their strategy around transforming the museum’s space; increasing science literacy and stewardship; building diverse audiences; continuing to preserve the collection, and more.

While the museum had success with well-attended mixers like the Night Owl series, expanded its youth programming and continued partnerships to host popular events like the California Native Plant Society’s annual wildflower show, they faced a series of challenges and personnel changes.

The former education director and executive director both resigned in September 2020. Board President Tama Olver stepped in to run operations in the interim, until they hired Carla Bitter as executive director in March, when museums were still closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.

On July 2, Bitter welcomed the museum’s new exhibit, Changes, which integrates their existing collection with education surrounding climate change in a bilingual Spanish/English exhibit on the second floor.

With over 20 years of experience in museum and zoos settings, Bitter is all about communicating science to a broad audience, having worked for Woodland Park Zoo, Museum of Flight and the Smithsonian. Despite having worked in bigger venues, Bitter says a small museum is the best place to make an impact. “When I came, I just thought ‘I’m home,’” she says. “I’ve worked at the biggest place: the Smithsonian. But I feel like my talents are much better suited for a smaller place.”

She wants to develop the confidence and professionalism of her staff enough that bigger museums turn to PGMNH as a talent pool. What if they end up poaching employees? “It’s OK. Museums need good people,” Bitter says.

She comes from an exhibit designer’s background. She hopes to lead her team in designing more educational, engaging and accessible exhibits.

“The anchor of any natural history museum – and it’s an old-school way of thinking – is dead things and plaques. Some people just love, love, love that,” Bitter says.

But her goal is to make sure new exhibits go further than a species’ history and into the future, giving visitors ideas for how to engage. She wants all visitors to walk away with a better sense of the local environment and how we can better protect it.

PACIFIC GROVE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY is open 10am-4pm Friday-Monday. 165 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove. 648-5716, pgmuseum.org

Marielle Argueza is a staff writer and calendar editor for the Weekly. She covers education, immigration and culture. Additionally, she covers the areas of Marina and South County. She occasionally writes about food and runs the internship program.

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