Nov 9 - Dec 31, 2017

SPOTLIGHT: Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History makes regular people into scientists on a mission.

By Charles Montesa

It started out as a storage room and exhibition site, where members of the New York-based Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle, a movement of everyday naturalists with the mission of exploring and studying the world, would stash objects they collected. In time, the Chautauqua Museum was established in 1883, before being disbanded and re-established under the Pacific Grove Museum Association and eventually in its current form in 2009.

From its early days, the nonprofit museum was founded on the idea of ordinary people exploring the world around them. “Our goal is to unlock everyone’s observation skills,” says Juan Govea, director of exhibits and education.

In addition to welcoming 40,000 annually to exhibits featuring things like monarch butterflies and native birds, the museum deputizes citizens to collect what can be valuable data. The benefits are twofold: First, their observations can advance meaningful science used by groups like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Second, citizen involvement empowers people to take an active role in science, advancing the museum’s conservation mission. That is the heart of the museum’s Big Idea in this year’s MCGives! campaign: to sustain and grow its citizen-science programs. Those include tracking local species like black oystercatchers, monitoring the health of local intertidal ecosystems and amplifying ongoing watershed monitoring efforts.

Currently, in coordination with the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, the museum teaches K-8 students to sample water for indicators of river health such as salinity and macroinvertebrates. The goal of the program is to provide youngsters with a strong understanding of, and a stronger connection with, a biodiverse ecosystem home to local species such as the steelhead trout.

A monarch butterfly project has proven effective. A total of 12 sites were monitored from 2014-15, with findings relaid to Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “From year to year we are learning about more overwintering sites,” museum spokesperson Patrick Whitehurst says. “Because of citizen science, we are learning [about areas] where they were normally not seen.” Data like this that helps scientists track endangered species; Xerces reports monarch butterflies declined in California by 74 percent from 1997-2001.

Even when the news is bad, Whitehurst says, the effect on participants can be positive: “[People are] observing and watching and taking part in natural history.”