California parks system unveils museum center in Sacramento

Most Californians know their state parks as a place to camp, walk on the beach or stare with jaws gaping into a canopy of giant redwoods. Fewer know the state parks system also guards one of the largest troves of historical artifacts in the nation.

Soon, Californians will be able to walk through that remarkable assembly of artifacts for the first time. They can survey one of the largest collections anywhere of American Indian basketry, behold racks of ornate furniture once owned by big names straight from the history books, and eye curiosities – such as Kit Carson’s name carved into a tree stump.

All these and a lot more are held by the California Department of Parks and Recreation at its new Museum Collections Center, a vast storage and research facility unveiled Wednesday after more than four years of preparation.

The center is housed at a cavernous concrete warehouse at Sacramento’s McClellan Park, a former U.S. Air Force installation. The state parks system spent four years and $15million refurbishing the building. In total, more than a million artifacts are stored here – and millions more documents and photographs – most of which have never been displayed in a state park or museum. Parks officials said they have as much responsibility to protect these remnants of California’s past as they do the parks themselves.

“We are heir to collections that started to come to the state over 130 years ago, and we have been guard of those collections ever since,” said Ross McGuire, director of the collections center.

Completion of the center is the first of several events that will mark the 150th anniversary of the state parks system in 2014. The system was launched June 30, 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting Yosemite Valley to the state. (It was returned to the federal government later; the National Park Service was not created until 1916).

Starting Jan. 7, the Museum Collections Center will be open to the public. The lobby, featuring a rotating display of artifacts, will be open daily for drop-in visits. Walking tours that showcase a broader sampling also will be available by appointment only.

The collection encompasses an eclectic array of California history: Racks of Indian kayaks and dugout canoes. A shipping container full of historic firearms, including a rare “market gun” – a four-barrel shotgun designed to kill dozens of waterfowl in a single shot.

And that bit of evidence left by Kit Carson. The famous explorer crossed the Sierra Nevada five years before the Gold Rush, and left his proof on a fir tree – at a mountain pass south of Lake Tahoe later named for him. The entire tree section where he carved “Kit Carson 1844” in a large knothole was donated to the state in 1888 when the tree was cut down.

The walking tour is a mile long and covers only a portion of the building, which is as large as six football fields. In total, the building holds 12 miles of shelving, 2.5 miles of pallet racks, and 2.3 million cubic feet of storage, McGuire said.

“I gave my staff pedometers for Christmas last year,” he said, “and they’re doing 6 to 7 miles a day.”

The parks department holds a 30-year lease on the building, with an option to purchase it outright. Renovating it to protect fragile artifacts was expensive, but not as expensive as building from scratch, McGuire said.

The Air Force built the structure with 10-inch thick concrete walls, which help maintain a stable temperature inside. Additional modifications ensure the artifacts are kept at an ideal constant temperature of 68 degrees and 50percent humidity in 100percent of the storage space.

That’s a far cry from conditions in the prior storage arrangement, which consisted of nine metal warehouses in West Sacramento. Only 25percent of that space was climate controlled, and not very well, McGuire said. It was at risk of deep flooding if levees on the Sacramento River ever failed. The new location at McClellan is above the floodplain.

“This is far superior,” said Richard Fitzgerald, a senior state archaeologist. “It’s better temperature-controlled. It’s everything we could hope for, really.”

On Wednesday, Fitzgerald and two other archaeologists were examining wood-carving tools, made from elk antler by Indians about 3,500 years ago. They were unearthed at a state park property, still closed to the public, on the edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near present-day Brentwood.

The new building cost the state $15 million, money generated by Proposition 84, a 2006 voter-approved bond measure. It marks a large expenditure for a state agency still struggling to mop up a financial scandal. Two years ago, The Sacramento Bee revealed that department leaders were hiding $23million even as they moved to close parks during the state budget crisis, as well as other fiscal improprieties.

New leadership at the department has been working to correct these problems. The state has appointed an independent commission, called Parks Forward, to help guide the agency – the largest state parks system in the nation – toward a financially sustainable future. The commission will meet Dec. 18 in Sacramento to discuss a wide-ranging survey of parks staff and visitors.

Caryl Hart, a Parks Forward commissioner, said a lot of work lies ahead.

“Do I think things have changed yet, other than the vast improvement in accounting and responding to the various audits and investigations?” she said. “No, I think we’re waiting to let this process play out. Things are on track, and the department has been highly cooperative. I think that, in and of itself, shows a department that’s willing to take a hard look at where they’ve been and where they need to go.”

McGuire said the Museum Collections Center is part of this new direction, and is intended to be a model of efficiency. It has received LEED Silver certification for energy and resource efficiency, and is estimated to require just 25percent of the energy consumed by average buildings of a similar size.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Dec. 5 to correct the phone number for more information.