A massive animal skeleton, larger than a tiger, swims through the air at the LA County Museum of Natural History, one front paw jutting forward and two large bulging eye sockets eyeing visitors. This impressive skeleton is an extinct aquatic mammal called Desmostylian, and it was discovered in Orange County. Still, school kids and curious adults alike must travel to Los Angeles to fully feel the visual impact of this awe-inspiring creature. Why? Because Orange County doesn’t have its own natural history museum.
Likewise, thousands of artefacts from indigenous peoples who have lived in this region since time immemorial have been unearthed over the years in Orange County, but none of these artefacts are available locally for residents of the Orange County can appreciate them. With literally millions of fossils, these cultural artefacts are on loan to museums in other countries or simply in storage.
We currently have a rare opportunity to do something about this state of affairs. The Town of Irvine is currently in the process of deciding how the remaining undesignated space in Great Park will be allocated. The park’s cultural terrace has space for a full-fledged museum, to accompany the sports, entertainment and outdoor leisure activities already planned. Given the lack of space for new developments in the rest of Orange County, this could be the last and best chance for the county to build a museum to showcase local history and prehistory.
The GabrieliÃ±o, Tongva, Acjachemen, and other indigenous peoples lived in the area now known as Orange County long before Europeans colonized southern California. Yet most of us know very little about our traditional cultures. Museum exhibits 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 to through time on how the first inhabitants of our region lived their lives. A first-rate cultural museum would honor the indigenous peoples of Orange County and create opportunities for education and understanding of the indigenous peoples who live in our communities today.
A fascinating example of artifacts discovered locally are the mysterious “jagged stonesÂ», Found only in Orange County and the southern coast of Chile. Dating from 9,000 to 7,000 years ago, these small cut stones look like cogwheels but show no utility wear. No one has yet understood what they are for. A cultural and natural history museum, with top-notch research facilities, could play a role in solving this mystery and pave the way for countless other discoveries that would strengthen Orange County’s place as as a Mecca for research and innovation.
Museums enrich families and communities in many ways. They are a place for people of diverse origins and beliefs to visit, mingle, learn and connect with culture and history in a pleasant and exciting environment. As centers of self-directed and experiential learning, they make learning fun. In addition to being knowledge repositories, 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 – a concentration of facilities impressive enough to be entrusted with the management of a space shuttle (the Endeavor)! San Diego has its many museums in Balboa Park, including museums of anthropology, natural history, local history, and Latinx culture. It’s time for Orange County to step up the fence and develop our own premier museum complex in Great Park, including a museum of cultural and natural history.
A world-class museum cannot be built overnight. This project could take a decade or more. But in a few years, teachers could bring their classrooms, and families could visit a first set of fossils and artifacts in temporary exhibits as the museum expands outward and upward.
Irvine City Council, in its capacity as the Great Park Board of Directors, will hold one or more public meetings to discuss how the remaining available space in Great Park will be allocated and make decisions regarding the future of Great Park. In the coming months. An interactive online survey always collects feedback and ideas, and more events will be held as plans take shape. Updates will be released here.
Irvine and Greater Orange County Residents: Please speak out to advocate for a local natural and cultural history museum. Great Park will offer many sports and entertainment options. Also include this museum – an invaluable addition to the culture of our region that will honor the indigenous peoples of our region and enrich all of our lives and those of generations to come.
Patricia Martz is chair of the board of directors of the California Cultural Resource Preservation Alliance, Inc. (CCRPA) and a member of the task force to develop a cultural and natural history museum in Orange County.
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