A Volunteer’s View: The Pacific Grove Natural History Museum from a Docent’s Perspective

It is quite unusual to have a big museum in a small town, but this is what makes The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History a rarity among American museums.  The collections total around 30,000 items, but the Museum’s space and funding are limited, so only a small fraction of these can be displayed at any one time. While many items are included in exhibits for the public to see, even more remain in storage, where they are meticulously cared for and catalogued. The Museum is equally loved by locals and visitors alike, but no matter where you’re from, it brings the history of the area and its plants and animals to life with a personal charm and a strong sense of the community that it is a part of.

Volunteers at the museum are most often local residents and many are actively involved in other local events and causes. Museum staff are also embedded in the community around them, always making connections with local groups or chapters of national societies like the Monarch Joint Venture and Xerces Society, Monterey Bay Native Plant Society, Carmel Valley Gem and Mineral Society, Ventana Wildlife Society, Bay Net, and many more. As a volunteer, you can meet and get to know all the staff personally in your first few months (something that would be impossible at larger institutions) and you can do this while working behind the scenes with a robust and rare collection of artifacts and specimens. Volunteers are often the first to see new exhibits when they go on display, such as the recently-opened Collectors: Teaching Throughout Time exhibit. This also gives volunteers a chance to ask questions and learn from the curator and collections specialist about the items (many never seen by the public). The museum also hosts special monthly enrichment events for its volunteers, building networks between individuals and providing valuable information for dissemination to the public.

This sense of connection between the Museum, its staff, and local groups is why many volunteers of all ages take the time to help at the Pacific Grove Museum. It’s why volunteers like Bruce Cowan, who has been with the museum for over 25 years, can remember the director emeritus Vern Yadon installing the Native Plant Garden: a garden Bruce still tends to this day. It is why Leslie Patten became a volunteer so that her 14-year-old daughter Pascale—now in high school—could help at the Museum she grew up visiting and loved so much. It is also for those who are new to the peninsula and want to get connected, like Stephane Edenholm was when she started as a volunteer, as well as for those who already live here and want to learn more about the area, like Larry Telles. 

Of course, the exhibits themselves and the desire to inspire also draw volunteers to the Museum! Take volunteer Lori Rolander, for example, who always makes sure to light up a child’s day by letting them touch an owl specimen with incredibly soft plumage. For Tama Olver it’s the shouts of excitement from visitors when they look through a spotting scope at the Monarch Sanctuary for the first time that make her day. Volunteers find something that connects with them: Whether they are in the Museum Store, tending the garden, leading field trips or Museum tours, helping kids do their arts and crafts on Science Saturday, or counting Black Oystercatcher nests along the Monterey Bay’s many beaches.  

Preserving the Museum and its collection for the future isn’t always easy. Volunteers who have been here long enough remember fighting to keep the doors open and the lights on, like Marc Rush, who helped organize a folk music fundraiser in what is now the Bird Room. The Museum still needs its volunteers and everything they do, and people still volunteer because of the connection they share with this place. In the end, that’s because the Museum is more than just a collection of artifacts and specimens. It is a part of the community, and volunteers from that community are a big part of bringing the Museum to life.