The university, alumni, community, and government
realize the vision of a first-class natural history museum at CSU,
by Francine Gair
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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 www.ncnhm.org
on the Web or contact Ray Barnett at 530-898-4865 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.