Gone dark

Why has the Chico Museum closed?

Chico Museum steering committee secretary Jeremy Markley stands in front of the iconic—but shuttered—former Carnegie library downtown.

Chico Museum steering committee secretary Jeremy Markley stands in front of the iconic—but shuttered—former Carnegie library downtown.

Photo by Kevin Fuller

Cherie Appel had been volunteering at the Chico Museum for five months when, in mid-September, she was told she would no longer be needed. The museum’s manager, Sarah Smallhouse, resigned at about the same time, and a notice was posted on the front door stating that the museum was “temporarily closed through November 30.”

“It’s just odd,” Appel said by phone. “No reason was given.”

Questions abound. Why is the museum, which has presented more than 100 exhibits in the historic Carnegie library building at Second and Salem streets since its founding in 1986, suddenly shuttered? And will it reopen in December, as the notice suggests?

And what about “Museum Night Out,” its biggest fundraiser of the year, which is scheduled for this Friday, Oct. 27, at the Butte Creek Country Club? Is it still on? And is the popular historical lecture series still alive? And what about Smallhouse, the museum’s vaunted manager? Does she have a job?

This reporter has tried to answer all of these questions, but efforts to reach Smallhouse as well as someone at the Far West Heritage Association (FWHA), which oversees the Chico Museum and Patrick Ranch, were unsuccessful. Phone messages left at FWHA offices were not returned by press time. And Facebook messages sent to several FWHA board members got no reply.

The CN&R had better success with members of the Chico Museum’s steering committee, which oversees ongoing operations of the museum. Here’s what the newspaper learned:

“Museum Night Out” has been canceled. The lecture series will continue, however, with local historian Michele Shover set to talk about her new book on settler and Indian relations in the early days of the North State. It’s scheduled for Nov. 4 at 10 a.m.

When the museum will reopen is unknown. In an email message, steering committee member Randy Taylor said organizers intend to wait until they’ve found a new manager.

On the other hand, Taylor wrote, “At this point we are even considering an all-volunteer staff. We are going to do what it takes to reopen as soon as possible to make Chico’s rich history available to everyone.”

What seems clear is that the museum is splitting off from the FWHA to become independent. As steering committee secretary Jeremy Markley phrased it during a phone interview, the museum “is in the very early stages of negotiating a departure” from Far West.

When Hester Patrick, the last of a pioneer family, died in 2001, she willed her 28-acre family ranch and Victorian farmhouse on the Midway 3 miles south of Chico to what was then called the Chico Museum Association.

The ranch was in some disrepair, but its possibilities as a living museum showcasing the history of agriculture in the Sacramento Valley were evident. Over the years, the CMA—soon renamed the Far West Heritage Association—developed the ranch into the popular event site it is today.

The arrangement “worked well for a long time,” Chico Museum steering committee member Morgan Kennedy told the CN&R by phone. Lately, though, it had become problematic, museum insiders told the CN&R. The Chico Museum and Patrick Ranch are very different, and the ranch brings in more revenue than the museum does.

When members of the FWHA board told them they wanted to close the museum temporarily to “reassess” the situation following Smallhouse’s resignation, steering committee members decided it was time to cut the cord.

“We were taken by surprise,” said local historian Dave Nopel, a member of the museum’s steering committee. But that was also the impetus for the museum’s decision to go independent, he added.

“It’s an amicable separation,” Markley said. “Everybody recognizes that the Patrick Ranch and the Chico Museum can do better independently.”

“I’m very optimistic,” Kennedy said. The core group of volunteers—members of the steering committee as well as others—are eager to reopen the museum. They’re well aware of the museum’s importance to the greater community, she continued. It’s the only place where Chicoans can look honestly at their history, “the positives and negatives” of life in the Sacramento Valley.