A massive animal skeleton, bigger than a tiger, swims through the air at the L.A. County Natural History Museum, one front paw reaching forward and two big bulging eye sockets ogling visitors. This impressive skeleton is an extinct aquatic mammal called Desmostylian, and it was discovered in Orange County. Yet, schoolchildren and curious adults have to travel to Los Angeles to experience the full visual impact of this impressive creature. Why? Because Orange County does not have its own natural history museum.
Similarly, thousands of artifacts from the Indigenous peoples who have lived in this region since time immemorial have been discovered over the years in Orange County, yet none of these artifacts are available locally for Orange County residents to appreciate. Along with literally millions of fossils, these cultural artifacts are on loan to museums in other counties or simply warehoused.
We have a rare opportunity right now to do something about this state of affairs. The City of Irvine is currently in a process to decide how the remaining undesignated space in Great Park will be allocated. The park’s Cultural Terrace has space for a full-fledged museum, to go along with the sports, entertainment and outdoor recreation features that are already planned. Given the lack of space for new development in the rest of Orange County, this could be the last, best chance for the county to build a museum to showcase local history and pre-history.
The Gabrieliño, Tongva, Acjachemen and other Native peoples have lived in the area now called Orange County since long before Europeans colonized Southern California. Yet most of us know very little about their traditional cultures. Museum displays of artifacts such as fishhooks, projectile points (commonly known as arrowheads), stone bowls and mortars, bone tools, shell beads, and abalone ornaments would open a window through time into the ways our region’s original inhabitants lived their lives. A top-notch cultural museum would honor Orange County’s Indigenous peoples and create opportunities for education about and understanding of Indigenous people who live in our communities today.
A fascinating example of locally-discovered artifacts are the mysterious “cogged stones,” found only in Orange County and the southern coast of Chile. Dating from 9,000 to 7,000 years ago, these small carved stones resemble cogged wheels but show no utilitarian wear. No one has figured out – yet – what they were used for. A cultural and natural history museum, complete with top-notch research facilities, could play a role in solving this mystery and lead the way on countless other discoveries that would reinforce Orange County’s place as a mecca of research and innovation.
Museums enrich families and communities in so many ways. They are a place for people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to visit, mingle, learn, and connect with culture and history in an enjoyable, exciting setting. As centers of self-directed, experiential learning, they make learning fun. As well as being repositories of knowledge, museums contribute to our knowledge and understanding of our communities and our world.
Los Angeles has its natural history museum, science center and science school at Exposition Park – an impressive enough concentration of facilities to be awarded stewardship of a space shuttle (the Endeavour)! San Diego has its numerous museums at Balboa Park, including museums of anthropology, natural history, local history and Latinx culture. It’s time for Orange County to swing for the fences and develop our own top-notch museum complex at Great Park, including a cultural and natural history museum.
A world-class museum isn’t built in a day. This project could take a decade or more to complete. But within a few years, teachers could be bringing their classrooms and families could be visiting a first set of fossils and artifacts in temporary exhibits as the museum grows outward and upward.
The Irvine City Council, in its capacity as the Board of Directors of Great Park, will be holding one or more public meetings to discuss how the remaining available space in Great Park will be allocated, and will be making decisions about the future of Great Park in the coming months. An online interactive survey is still collecting comments and ideas, and more events will be held as plans take shape. Updates will be posted here.
Residents of Irvine and of greater Orange County: Please speak up to advocate for a local cultural and natural history museum. Great Park is going to have lots of great sports and entertainment options. Let’s also include this museum – an invaluable addition to the culture of our region that will honor our region’s Indigenous peoples and enrich all our lives and those of generations to come.
Patricia Martz is President of the Board of Directors of the California Cultural Resource Preservation Alliance, Inc. (CCRPA) and member of the task force to develop a cultural and natural history museum in Orange County.
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