My hometown of Chico in California is a little agricultural town which is known for two things: the Sierra Nevada Brewery, and for being on Playboy’s top party colleges back in the 90’s. However, the locals and Chico State school board would like to leverage the lesser known facts –Chico produces most of the Western world’s rice, almonds and walnuts– to make our town a tourist destination.
The existing museums in Chico are relatively unknown outside of Chico but are regular destinations for local school field trips. The Bidwell Mansion the oldest home in Chico, which was owned by the founders of the city, seems to be nothing more than just a strange pink house near the college that can be seen from the busiest street in town. Our 5th graders probably know more about it than our adults.
The Sierra Nevada Brewery has received so much attention in recent years that their brew-house restaurant was updated less than a decade ago to include a glass wall in the waiting area which allows patrons to view the beer as it is being made.
This became such a popular feature and tour times have been in high demand, prompting the renovation of the brewery. It now includes a beautifully done two story wing made entirely of glass and wood in the Art Nouveu style where brew techniques can be viewed through glass walls and explanatory plaques are placed intermittently to allow the guest to embark on a self-guided tour. Most people use them to further their knowledge as they wait for the guided tour to begin, which is referred to with drunken wonderment as the equivalent of going on a “big kid’s tour” of the Willy Wanka Chocolate Factory, complete with platforms that extend out over the vats, allowing you to be completely immersed in the room.
Although a museum addition wasn’t originally intended by the brewery, they stepped up to the demand of their patrons, and the Sierra Nevada Brewery is now known as the main destination for tourists and families coming to town to check out the college. What were the small agriculture and city oriented museums to do?
In a bold step, the city of Chico built a brand-new, state of the art natural history museum, called the Gateway Science Museum, in an abandoned lot next to the Bidwell Mansion to serve as an extension of Chico State. The juxtaposition of the old Victorian house sharing a parking lot with the brightly colored Modernistic Gateway Science Museum is a bit striking, making both stand out from the street, rejuvenating the centralized area only a few blocks from the oldest church in town, the Bidwell Presbyterian Church, and the entrance to the closed off Chico State campus. Still focused on school aged children, the Gateway Science Museum opened last Spring in time for summer camp to begin, and two of the kids I worked with last year as a youth leader claimed it was “Very cool.” (Which is actually a pretty big compliment if you’ve ever spent any time with bored 6th graders.)
Although this new museum is very well known now in the community, a bigger effort by the city is still somewhat under-wraps. Previously, I hadn’t known that other than the Bidwell Mansion, Gateway Science Museum and Chico Museum (whose existence is usually only noted by those stumbling down the street at early hours after the bars have closed because of it’s lack of advertisement or even signage in front of the building) there are 3 other museums in the city: an outdoor animal refuge, old rice factory and another piece of historic architecture. In an effort to demonstrate the history of Chico as more than just the partying college and home of good beer, the Gateway Science Museum was created to complete the museum circuit and renovations on the 5 existing facilities are underway. Instead of acting as 6 independent museums competing for attention, the City of Chico is hoping that visitors will appreciate a much broader, multi-locational museum experience with combined efforts, events and a single fee.
However, this was all made known to me through someone who is apart of the planning committee, and therefore, it’ll be interesting to see if they are actually able to advertise in the way needed to make sure this idea is successful. The Sierra Nevada Brewery museum is a hard act to follow, but hopefully this new focus on Chico’s history will lead to an grouping of sites which will be interesting to more than just school children needing time out of the classroom.