Chico Museum celebrates 25 years of preserving history
When people ask Melinda Rist where Chico Museum is, they nod only after she says “across from The Bear.”
Rist is friendly with the owners of the Madison Bear Garden, the popular downtown eatery and night spot, but as the museum marks its 25th anniversary this year, the enthusiastic manager’s goal is for the Chico Museum to one day be the more recognizable landmark that leads people to the Second and Salem intersection.
“Truly, the museum is such a jewel. We’re proud to be the Chico Museum,” said Rist. “It’s such a privilege and honor to walk in the steps of the men and women who got it started.”
The museum building was originally one of some 2,500 Carnegie libraries built in the late-19th and early-20th centuries with money donated by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. In 1904, with a $10,000 gift from the philanthropist, Chico’s library was built and remained open at the downtown spot until the late-’70s.
In 1985, thanks in large part to the organization and fundraising done by Soropotomist International of Chico, work began to remodel the space and turn it into a museum.
Since opening in 1986, Chico Museum has hosted more than 90 exhibits, both permanent and rotating. Some have been borrowed from other organizations, but most—including this year’s Amazing Grains: The Story of Rice in California and Beyond exhibit—have been locally curated. Other notable exhibits have included The Adventures of Robin Hood, Chico Aviation History, 102 years of Chico Baseball and many featuring Chico artists, including Janet Turner, Ken Morrow, and many more.
Last year, 1,600 local school children visited the museum for The Secret World of Bees, which featured the Richard Marple Beekeeping History and Art Collection. So far for the rice exhibit, the museum has had 2,500 visitors, half of which have been school children and other youth groups.
The permanent exhibits include the Chinese Temple (currently offsite for cleaning), and the McIntyre Gallery (named for Soroptimist Valene McIntyre), which currently displays the agricultural history of the North Valley, as well as a timeline of Chico history from 1830-2000.
Looking ahead, Rist is considering changes to the Chico timeline.
“There’s so much more to tell about the history of Chico. I’d like to turn the gallery into the history of Chico. We have the Chinese, and the Indians’ story to tell. I’m going to start knocking on doors for support for that. It’s not just the Bidwells and the Stansburys. It’s important to keep changing the museum. There are so many aspects to highlight and showcase.”
The Amazing Grains exhibit—on display through Feb. 5, 2012—features an impressive re-creation of a rice paddy environment, including 250 species that can be spotted in the life-like display.
Prior to the Gold Rush, California’s Central Valley was home to 4 million acres of wetlands. Today, a mere 5 percent survive.
The exhibit also includes a collection of yellowed newspaper clippings that chronicle advances in the regional rice industry. A wall-sized map of the world shows how citizens of different continents use rice and rice products, and you can even pick up some recipes for preparing rice and share a few of your own.
The museum and the Patrick Ranch south of Chico are operated under the umbrella of the Far West Heritage Association.
Rist, the only paid employee, has been the Chico Museum manager for about a year, after having volunteered there for a year. The museum board of directors has 12 members from various segments of the community, and Rist also enjoys help from about 15 volunteers, including Heather McCafferty and Audra Hoyt, two Chico State graduates who are the museum’s volunteer curators. “They both have master’s degrees, and bring creativity and history to it,” Rist said. “With the rice exhibit, they were constantly asking, ‘What will the farmers think? We want to make them proud.’ ”
In addition to the contributions of volunteers, the museum depends on donatations, and one way Rist said that people and organizations can help is by sponsoring field trips for $20 per class.
“We are really good about thanking our donors, because we would not be here without them. We don’t get state or city finds, but the city gives us the use of this building, which we’re grateful for.”