As the internet changes the way we find and view information, museums and libraries around the country are being forced to change how they serve their communities. The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History is an example of that change. The century old museum has begun a renovation designed to appeal to a new generation more comfortable with technology than taxidermy.
During preview night at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History last August, more than 150 people walked through the newly renovated Adaptation of Birds Gallery. Walls of glass cases filled with more than 400 taxidermy birds, all spotted in Monterey County, line the room.
Volunteer Mary Dainton stood in a crowd holding a bird from the collection.
“This is a Steller's Jay. And they're here on the Monterey Peninsula year-round,” Dainton said.
This gallery and its birds have been part of the museum for decades. But Museum Director Jeanette Kils says the exhibit just wasn’t connecting with today’s kids.
“It's a fabulous collection. But what did kids take away from that before, not so much. There just wasn't anything for them to do in the room. They were birds behind glass,” Kils said.
So, the museum has added five interactive displays throughout the gallery where children can be creative and understand how birds adapt. One of the new displays allows kids to actually build their own bird.
“They can use their imaginations and say, you know, I'm going to take the beak of a pelican and I'm going to put it on the foot of a hummingbird. And what's that crazy bird going to look like,” said Kils.
The bird gallery is the first of eight areas in the museum that are part of a $2 million renovation over the next three years.
Museums are not the only 19th century institutions being forced to modernize. Monterey’s Public library is California’s oldest library, and it too is changing.
Ellie Anderson is the library’s Youth, Reference and Outreach Services Manager. She says it is no longer just a place to check out books.
“We do cooking programs for a variety of ages. We have ukuleles that you can borrow with your library card. We have two telescopes that you can borrow. Anybody with a library card can now access the stars,” she said.
Anderson says the library is really about teaching and fostering curiosity and, even in a world of social media, bringing people together to share their passions.
“More and more people in the age of internet, I think, feel isolated. And so, in an increasingly isolated world, the library is a place where you can... anybody can come and make a connection,” said Anderson.
In Santa Cruz, bringing people together is an important part of the success of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, known as the MAH. Nina Simon took over as the museum’s Executive Director in 2011 during a crucial time. The museum was just a week away from going broke.
“I really believe that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” said Simon.
While dealing with the troubled finances and other challenges, Simon reached out to the community.
“One of the things I made time to do my first week was paint a comment board in the lobby and say we want your ideas,” she said.
Simon invited artists to draw and paint, she invited musicians to hold concerts and poets to read their poetry all at the museum. In her first year, the MAH tripled attendance.
“So I think what we actually saw at the MAH, and I know is happening around the country, is people are hungry for places to connect,” Simon adds.
The museum is now financially solid with a growing membership and Simon is no longer Executive Director. She now works with museums nationally to make them more connected to their communities. She has written two books and given two TED-X talks on making institutions more relevant as she explains in this excerpt from her 2017 TED-X talk in Palo Alto.
“People are more culturally engaged than ever, but they are choosing to have those experiences outside of traditional cultural institutions. That means you are way more likely today to pick up a paintbrush than you are to go to an art museum. Instead of going to a history museum, people are doing their own genealogical research and as a museum director I look at this and I say we got to get in on this game.”
In the age of the internet, Simon says, museums and libraries need to stop being passive and start being places where visitors actively participate; not just full of things for people to see, but places where people gather.
The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, the Monterey Public Library and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History are all supporters of KAZU.