Editorial: A smart step back on history museum

07/17/2013 12:00 AM

08/02/2013 6:30 PM

Thoughtfully planned, a new natural history museum could be a prize for Sacramento's riverfront. The $15 million offered by Paul and Renee Snider to build it is a generous gift that doesn't come along often.

Yet, legitimate concerns have already been lodged – both on the museum's design and exhibits. The challenge for proponents is to convince the public this will be a museum of national stature, not just a gallery of stuffed exotic animals.

The Sniders and their supporters have wisely decided to slow down, to consider some of the misgivings and to reach out to the community before moving forward. To succeed, the museum needs strong and broad-based support, acknowledges the group behind it.

"We're not ready yet," Jan Burch, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Waterfront Museums Project, told The Bee's editorial board. The timetable is uncertain, but it won't be going to the City Council in November, as previously scheduled.

You could argue that some of the blowback could have been avoided with better up-front ground work. The first that most heard of the proposal was a story by The Bee's Ryan Lillis on Thursday, with the first public meeting on it that afternoon. Given the controversy the Sniders faced in 2007 – forcing them to abandon a proposed museum at California State University, Sacramento – another uproar was predictable.

Again, the most vocal objections have come from the Humane Society of the United States and have focused on the Sniders' collection of mounted game they hunted on six continents. Humane Society leaders say that such trophy hunting endangers rare animals and that exhibits featuring them are not educational. They also point out the jarring juxtaposition with the city's animal shelter, across the street from the museum site.

For their part, the Sniders promise the museum will focus on education and conservation. Their collection would be displayed in dioramas similar to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Field Museum in Chicago, and would be supplemented by high-quality traveling exhibits from around the globe.

There may not be much common ground between the Sniders and some of their more hard-line critics, but it is worth trying. If a compromise can't be reached, the dispute would land at City Hall. While the city's Planning and Design Commission – the first stop for the project – does not have a say on the exhibits, the City Council could add conditions as part of the sale of 5 acres the Sniders want to buy from the city for the museum.

In a town where projects are easily killed, this one deserves a chance to prove itself and succeed. The museum could jump-start the Docks, a 29-acre residential and commercial development delayed by the recession – and help anchor a cultural district stretching from the Crocker Art Museum to the planned Powerhouse Science Center. And while a rather odd combination, the proposed museum would provide a new, bigger home for the California Automobile Museum, now stuck in a leaky warehouse.

In debating the museum, city leaders need to consider that broader vision and remember – they have one chance to get the riverfront right.

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