Almost history

Chico Museum changes its name, structure after unplanned closure last fall

Board members—including (from left) Debbie Ricci, Amy Kao and Randy Taylor—operate the Chico History Museum strictly with, and alongside, other volunteers.

Board members—including (from left) Debbie Ricci, Amy Kao and Randy Taylor—operate the Chico History Museum strictly with, and alongside, other volunteers.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Next event:
The museum's lecture series continues 10 a.m. Saturday (April 7), with Liz Stewart speaking about local Chinese settlers; $5 requested. The museum is at 141 Salem St.; donations may be mailed to P.O. Box 6988, Chico, CA, 95927.

As Amy Kao walked into the old Carnegie library building, through double doors beneath the awning and glass pane marked “Chico Museum,” she quickly detected a comforting presence: cool air.

She arrived after work Tuesday evening (April 3)—joining other board members to speak about the direction of the reopened, rebranded museum—and found, to her surprise and relief, the decrepit HVAC system functioning.

For the moment. Later this week, later this month, maybe not. By summer, well …

Climate control is but one detail Kao, the board president, and the other dozen or so volunteers have to account for now that they’re operating the museum themselves.

As reported in the CN&R (“Gone dark,” Newslines, Oct. 26, 2017), the Chico Museum closed in September following the resignation of its paid manager, Sarah Smallhouse. A sign on-site called it a “temporary” closure, through Nov. 30.

That action came from the Far West Heritage Association, which also oversees the Patrick Ranch. Current museum board member Dave Nopel, who at the time served on a site-specific steering committee with (among others) Kao, said it happened “without our input or discussion.” Debbie Ricci, the museum’s board secretary, described the news as “a thunderbolt.”

Nopel said the group received indications the museum wouldn’t reopen, yet “was unwilling to walk away” from the shuttered showplace.

“I can remember when there was no Chico Museum,” he said. “I remember people of my parents’ generation dreaming of when Chico could have its museum. Finally this took shape over five years of volunteer work and financing, and the Chico Museum has been here for 30-plus years.”

Indeed, the Chico Museum opened in February 1986. Nopel joined the steering committee five years ago, following an exhibition of photos from the collection of his late father, renowned Chico historian John Nopel. Kao and Ricci got involved at roughly the same time, Ricci due to her friendship with Randy Taylor, who currently serves as exhibit chair.

The board, with Kao as liaison, is negotiating with the heritage association to assume ownership of the museum’s contents—then will be positioned to execute a new lease with the city to use the building.

“I think we actually can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Nopel said, “and it may be just a few weeks to a month away before we sign off [on agreements.]”

The Chico History Museum, as it’s now called, reopened in December. It has limited hours—11-4, Thursday-Sunday—in no small part due to the volunteer nature of the operation.

There’s no paid staff; during this transition period, board members have sought to economize by doing everything themselves. Even so, the museum costs between $30,000 and $50,000 a year to run, not counting outlays such as replacing the aforementioned air conditioner. The biggest annual fundraiser, Museum Night Out, was canceled because of the closure.

“The flow of money is right at the root of this transition,” Nopel said.

Added Kao: “We need volunteerism—amongst funds, obviously, but volunteerism is a way to keep this museum open that limits the cost of our operation.” Despite recruitment efforts, she said, “we’re running out of folks.”

The Chico History Museum has information for prospective supporters—donors and volunteers—on its website, Concurrently, and somewhat confusingly, the Far West Heritage Association has kept active its site for the facility (, updating some information but not all, and using Chico Museum for its name. The Far West Heritage Association says it plans to forward its site to the new address upon completion of the transfer agreement.

For specifics on the closure and negotiations, the CN&R contacted Steven Heithecker, president of Far West, Wednesday morning; he was unavailable for comment by press deadline, as was Vice President Susan Donohue.

Since reopening, the museum has hosted three events: the first two installments of a new lecture series, which resumes this weekend (see infobox), and a celebration of the Chico Chinese Temple exhibit, held March 23.

The museum’s centerpiece is Chico Through Time, of which the temple is a part. Following the Nopel photo exhibition, featuring rare historical images, Taylor and Nopel (among others) collaborated to turn the museum’s focus toward the city’s past.

“There had been general-interest exhibits on bees and rice and bicycles, and those were all good,” Nopel said. “There was a real interest to bring back Chico’s story.”

That vision remains: “Our plan is to keep it just Chico,” Taylor said.

“Chico history is incredible,” Ricci said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and these two gentlemen have taught me so much about Chico that I never knew. This town has so much that most people don’t know about—that’s what we hope to show them.”

Chico Through Time exhibits will rotate several times a year. Currently there’s a look at classic buildings, most notably three “grand hotels,” highlighted by items from Taylor’s personal collection. Coming soon will be a World War I commemoration with memorabilia loaned by a benefactor.

Taylor said exhibits have roughly a “50-50” split between objects owned by the museum and community members. Even after five years, he hasn’t been able to inventory every museum possession—unopened boxes still await in the basement.

Also at his disposal are catalogs of the 100-some exhibits produced over 32 years—plus, the building itself, which board members see as worthy of showcasing, perhaps in a lecture.

“There’s just a nearly endless kind of opportunity and potential [here] for exhibits,” Nopel said.

“It just speaks to the pride of Chico,” Kao injected. “There’s just tremendous pride in this community—people who have lived here, people who have had families here—and we feel very privileged to be able to share that.”