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Title treatment "The Making of a Museum."

The university, alumni, community, and government realize the vision of a first-class natural history museum at CSU, Chico

Photo: Ray Barnett tours the current natural history museum with elementary schoolchildren.

Ray Barnett tours the current natural history museum with elementary schoolchildren.

Imagine confronting a full-scale Tyrannosaurus rex next to Bidwell Mansion, then facing down a giant ground sloth or a life-size robotic mammoth. That’s what’s in store for the visitor to the proposed state-of-the-art Northern California Natural History Museum at CSU, Chico, to be built on a site donated by CSU, Chico, adjacent to the mansion.

“Few people realize that Northern California had all the animals found in La Brea Tar Pits,” says Museum Executive Director Ray Barnett (Biological Sciences). Ice Age Northern California will be on display in the Pleistocene Age of Giant Mammals exhibit, including camels, sloths, mastodons, mammoths, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats.

As for T-rex and other life-size replicas, they will be part of the Mesozoic Age of Dinosaurs exhibit. Visitors to the Worlds of Northern California will travel a pathway through California’s four major habitats. With “John Muir” as their guide, they’ll begin at the coast with its tidepool and live sea creatures, stop at the running stream in the valley, visit Ishi’s camp in the foothills, and, finally, trek through the high mountains.

The Current Age of Conservation exhibit, with a mountain-to-plains tableau of modern-day large mammals and birds, will help visitors learn about protecting Northern California’s precious natural resources. “We are lucky in Northern California to have such an undiscovered, priceless heritage,” remarks Barnett, “yet no museum so far has focused on this amazing area.”

Southern and Central California have several excellent natural history museums focusing on those regions, he says, but there are none between the Bay Area and central Oregon. “Northern California deserves a museum where kids can learn about the natural history of their own area,” he says.

Barnett and his team plan to remedy this deficiency with a $9 million, 15,000-square-foot regional museum (see artist’s rendering above) to capture the attention of Northern California schoolchildren, scholars, and tourists.

“I’d like to have an exhibit hall where you walk in and your jaw drops,” says Richard Hilton, museum board member and CSU, Chico alum (M.S., Earth Science, ’74). As chair of the Sierra College Natural History Museum in Rocklin and professor of geology, Hilton is Northern California’s most prominent paleontologist. He discovered the first dinosaur fossils in Northern California (near Redding) and plans to share his extensive collection of fossils so that the people of Northern California can see what the area was like in the various times of its ancient history. Sierra College has an abundance of Northern California fossils from as far back as 500 million years—mammoth bones, a dinosaur foot found in Shasta County, plesiosaur bones, giant clams, corals, ammonites—that will be cast to build life-size replicas for the museum.

Photo: Liam McCarthy and Regan Lechner peer up at a golden eagle.

Liam McCarthy and Regan Lechner peer up at a golden eagle.

“This will not be a museum of ‘dead animals behind glass,’ ” notes Barnett, “but of immersion diorama walks that will allow visitors to be in the scene, with no glass to separate them from the experience.” He envisions plenty of touching and doing, not just looking, in the new museum.

The Worlds Beyond hall will feature the interactive and entertaining Hands On! Science display developed by Professor LaDawn Haws (Center for Mathematics and Science Education), which has become a favorite of Chico area children and adults in several venues over the past three years. Once or twice a year, the Hands On! Science exhibit will yield to an exciting traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, or another prominent museum. Exhibits of wildlife in art and other novel uses of this hall are envisioned throughout the year.

Away from the grandeur of the exhibit halls will be a state-of-the-art classroom and meeting room, where local and visiting experts will hold workshops and lectures, and where local clubs and organizations can meet. It will feature a wet lab for scientific experiments and a bank of Web-connected computers for research and interactive displays. School visits to the museum may begin or end here, with a variety of hands-on educational experiences. The university’s Center for Mathematics and Science Education plans many ongoing programs, such as introducing Northern California immigrant populations (Chicano, Hmong, and Vietnamese) to local habitats and conservation traditions.

A patio and sculpture garden, children’s playground, and refreshment center will round out the museum’s services. The museum will be open 364 days a year and may offer a joint ticket option with Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park.

Alums lit the fuse

The impetus for the museum came from early exhibits Barnett developed for the current natural history museum in Holt Hall. In 1995, he decided to take a collection of seashells out of the museum and put them into colorful, entertaining exhibits in display cabinets along the halls of the building, where they could be enjoyed more fully by more people. Student in-terns created graphics for the exhibition, and local artist Scott Hudson was commissioned to make sculptures of the creatures that inhabit the shells. The exhibit caught the favorable attention of alum Sheryl Lange (B.A., Psychology, ’66), who said it was better than the famous Sanibel Island Seashell Museum in Florida, which she had recently visited with her husband, Dr. Kenneth Lange. In the fall of 1997, Sheryl Lange and other alumni formed the core of the original Community Advisory Board. This group transformed into the museum’s Board of Directors in September 1998.

Current museum board president is Judy Sitton (B.A., Social Science, ’68), retired executive vice president of Sungard Bi-Tech Software of Chico, a company she founded with her husband, CEO Gary Sitton (B.A., Business Marketing, ’67; M.S., Business, ’68). The Sittons have made a $100,000 gift to fund the Gary and Judy Sitton Current Age of Conservation exhibit.

In January and February 2000, Lange hosted a series of focus groups for members of Chico’s business, professional, academic, environmental, and sporting groups. These groups provided valuable insight into the community’s ideas for the proposed museum. Lange, currently the museum board’s secretary, is also Alumni Board vice president and serves on the University Advisory Board. She and her husband are Founding Donors of the museum.

When museum board member Glen Toney (B.A., Philosophy, ’66) retired as group vice president of Applied Materials in Santa Clara, he returned to Chico. He serves on the Advisory Board of the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology and is president of the Alumni Board.

Toney says that his commitment to the museum stems from a desire to “motivate kids.” He cited a McConnell Foundation report that found that too often Northern California students with the right academic qualifications do not go on to higher education because there is nothing in their lives to motivate them to do it. He and his wife, Virginia Toney, have made a $100,000 gift to fund the Glen and Virginia Toney Mesozoic Age of Dinosaurs exhibit. Other alumni on the museum board include Eddi Deromedi (’75), Bruce Dillman (’78), Marilyn Sibley (’47), Anne Stephens (’86), and College of Natural Sciences Director of Development Kim DuFour (’81).

A recent alum, Heidi (Laird) Hannaman (B.A., Political Science/ICST Media Arts, ’98), helped lay the groundwork for significant funding from the state. A member of the Alumni Board, Hannaman was inspired by the museum’s vision and, as legislative director for State Assemblyman Dick Dickerson, she called her boss’s attention to the benefits of the museum for the North State and asked for his help in getting funding. As a result of her efforts, Dickerson advocated for the museum project with Governor Gray Davis. During an October 2002 campaign visit to Chico, Davis and his secretary for resources, Mary Nichols, announced a $3 million allocation of Proposition 40 funds for the museum. Proposition 40 is the Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act passed in the March primary election—the largest conservation bond measure ever approved.

Barnett attributes the funding to the hard work and professionalism of the museum’s board of directors, plus great support from CSU, Chico alumni, faculty, administration, and friends. Stanley Young, Secretary Nichols’ communications officer, told Barnett that when the Proposition 40 funds became available, the museum was a top contender because “you had your ducks in a row and looked solid.”

Photo: Ray Barnett, Dick Dickerson, Heidi Hannaman, Glen Toney, and Judy Sitton discuss plans on the new museum’s grounds.

Ray Barnett, Dick Dickerson, Heidi Hannaman, Glen Toney, and Judy Sitton discuss plans on the new museum’s grounds.

Community lends support

The museum has had unprecedented support from the community. The board of directors currently includes 25 members from Chico and Northern California’s business, professional, and educational communities.

The first major gift to the museum came from board member Marcia Moore, cardiologist and chief of medicine at Enloe Medical Center. She made a gift of $500,000 for the Worlds of Northern California exhibit, to be housed in Cornyn-Moore Hall, in honor of her late husband, Dr. Jim Cornyn, who was also a Chico cardiologist.

“Jim loved the outdoors, especially Northern California,” recalls Moore. “We would often say how lucky we were to live in this area.” Natural history, biology, and education were special loves of his.

Three months after Cornyn’s death, Moore had been thinking about a fitting memorial when she attended a presentation by Barnett to the Advisory Board of the biology department. “The exhibit that struck me was the Worlds of Northern California,” she says, “because it includes all the places Jim loved, and it has such a strong educational theme.” She followed Barnett out into the hall and arranged to sponsor it that very day. She is recognized as a Founder of the museum.

Past museum board president Garey Weibel, former publisher of the Chico Enterprise-Record, jokes that he joined the board in order to spend some time with his wife, Barbara, who was devoting much time to the museum effort. For 2002–2003, she is even more involved as new board vice president. The Weibels have made a $100,000 gift to fund the Garey and Barbara Weibel Pleistocene Age of Giant Mammals.

The board has personally funded the activities for the planning stage, including a feasibility study, preliminary drawings, promotional materials, travel, expenses, and the services of a paid staff member, Jessee Allread, director for major gifts.

Allread, a senior partner of Part5ive Consulting, has been a natural history buff for years, with a collection of wildlife specimens mounted in his home. “I’m looking forward to the museum for my kids,” he says. “They’re excited that I’m involved in it.” He and his wife, Gwen, are Founding Contributors to the museum.

Local schoolteachers are already making plans to bring their classes to the museum. Jodie Dillman, a 4th-grade teacher at Neal Dow Elementary in Chico, is thrilled at the idea of having a hands-on museum available to her students. “Kids learn best when they can touch and interact,” she says.

An active educational program is planned, including tours for schoolchildren from throughout Northern California, Web sites for use by schools and community members, waterfowl/wetlands field education, and summer education programs. “We want Northern California schoolchildren to learn about their home and appreciate it,” says Barnett.

It was a visit to the new Turtle Bay Museum in Redding that made CSU, Chico President Manuel A. Esteban realize the true potential of the Natural History Museum for the university and the community.

“I was working from an intellectual commitment to the idea,” he says. “Now I’m speaking from the heart.” Esteban says that the university has made the museum one of its areas of major focus. He is committed to mentioning it whenever he speaks, “and I do a lot of talking,” he says.

In planning the proposed museum, he says, the board has worked closely with Turtle Bay and is convinced that the two museums will complement each other nicely. “Turtle Bay is broader in scope,” says Barnett, “covering art, history, and natural science, but narrower in geographical focus, covering only the upper Sacramento River watershed. Our scope will be natural history only, but our geographical focus will cover all of Northern California, from the coast to the mountains.”

A big draw

The board sees the new natural history museum as a benefit to the whole community. Their business plan states that the museum will become a powerful tourist destination, drawing visitors not only from Northern California but from all over the state, plus Nevada and Oregon, bringing economic as well as cultural benefits to Chico.

“We will be poised to take maximum advantage of the growing success of museums nationwide,” the plan states, citing surveys by the American Association of Museums and the National Endowment for the Arts showing museum attendance growing by a healthy 6.9 percent annually since the mid-1980s.

“People will come to the museum in Chico the way they go to the Monterey Aquarium,” predicts Hilton. “They’ll say ‘Wow! Wasn’t that an experience!’ That’s what I’m looking for.”

It will also be a teaching museum, adds Barnett, involving university students in biology, geosciences, parks and recreation, education, anthropology, museum studies, and more. He also expects to recruit students from the university’s work study or student assistant programs and local high school students to work as docents, volunteers, staff, and maintenance workers. Volunteer docents from the community will provide information to visitors and security for the exhibits.

The vision of a group of dedicated, passionate visionaries is expected to become reality in fall 2004 or spring 2005 with the opening of the Northern California Natural History Museum. For more information about the museum, visit on the Web or contact Ray Barnett at 530-898-4865 or

About the author

Francine Gair is a freelance writer and editor with a background in advertising writing. She lives in Chico.

Photos by Jeff Teeter and Davin Schreindl.