Daytime at the museum
Gateway in Chico offers a diverse collection of exhibits focused on the natural world
Renee Renner clearly enjoys her job. Squinting in the sun on a recent blistering day, the executive director of the Gateway Science Museum flashed a wide smile as she pointed to a group of bees buzzing around a bush awash with blue flowers.
“If you look closely, you can see at least three different species of bee at any one time,” she said, “just with your bare eyes.”
The museum is hosting a traveling exhibit, “TreeHouses: Look who’s living in the trees!” But Renner couldn’t help herself—she had to go to the museum’s garden first. Considering how well the space fits in with local sustainability efforts, it was easy to see why. The garden was created—several years ago, so it’s well-established—to be an example of a native, drought-tolerant, pollinator-attracting garden.
“It was designed to be a showcase of what we can grow here simply and easily,” she said. The past few years of drought have pushed people toward a new model of landscaping, which can take some time to get used to, she said, acknowledging that it was a hard sell for her at first, too. “But it’s grown on me. Now, I have sage and salvia in my own garden.”
As she circled the plants, Renner pointed to different species and remarked on how successful they’ve been in attracting bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Milkweed, in particular, is often pooh-pooh’d because people think it’s a weed, she said, but it’s not invasive, and this past spring, she noticed theirs attracted migrating monarchs.
Around back is the museum’s edibles garden, where a modest crop of seasonable produce is grown. The goal, Renner said, is to show people how easily they can grow a few veggies in standard planter boxes.
The Gateway Science Museum’s exhibits range from the natural, permanent setting of the pollinator and edibles gardens to traveling or temporary shows focusing on specific topics. The goal is to educate, Renner said, rather than to push an agenda. In that vein, she pointed to the exhibit titled “Modern Farming: Land, water, people and science,” which highlights advancements by Chico State agriculture students and faculty as well as Butte County’s top ag commodities.
One particular display related to food and population growth.
“That’s something we’re always getting hit with from big ag—that we need to farm more so that we can feed a growing number of people,” she said while a globe rotated in front of visitors, highlighting parts of the world where walnuts—she’d pushed that button—are grown and consumed.
Another display focused on rice fields and water, and how they connect with the natural world through migratory birds and other animals, like crawfish and fairy shrimp. “In a drought, people wonder why they flood the fields,” Renner said. “We want to present the information so people can learn and understand for themselves.”
The other main room of the museum featured a tree house exhibit, on loan all the way from New England and hand-picked by Chicoan and museum supporter Bonnie Huntington, who donated the money to bring it to Chico. In the middle is a large tree complete with a house and suspension bridge reminiscent of something out of The Swiss Family Robinson.
“[The exhibit] is meant to inform people about all the animals that live among or in the trees,” Renner said, “about their habitat, and how to be better stewards of that habitat.”
Videos and display stations scattered throughout the room concentrate on different tree-related topics, from responsible logging to accepted etiquette for dealing with bird nests and eggs. Part of the reason for the exhibit’s name, “TreeHouses,” Renner said, is that it shows how wood can be transformed from living tree to lumber to pieces put together to form a home.
“In a way, we’re all tree-dwellers,” she said.
Renner pointed to a few localized touches spread out among the traveling show, including banners displaying local native trees, a research poster on trees and drought from Chico State’s Department of Science and Natural Resources and a hand-picked display about the Carolina parakeet.
“Bonnie’s husband was an outdoorsman—this was an opportunity for her to bring in an exhibit that highlights the outdoors and conservation of it,” she said of the exhibit’s donor. “Bonnie also loves parrots. So, in researching, we found that the Carolina parakeet was the only parrot—yes, it’s actually a parrot—to be native to this country before its extinction, which is another way we can show the importance of protecting this natural habitat.”