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State artifacts collection had everything — but a home

The 2 million relics, many in various warehouses, will be moved to a massive, safer space at the former McClellan air base. The collection will also be thinned out.

April 01, 2013|By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times
  • A vintage picture waits to be cataloged in a warehouse in Northern California.
A vintage picture waits to be cataloged in a warehouse in Northern California. (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Almost three decades ago, as heavy rain threatened to breach the levees protecting the Sacramento area, the state parks department urgently dispatched workers to warehouses holding some of California's most important heirlooms — gold-mining tools, pioneer pottery, antique rifles.

They were prepared to load the objects onto trucks and drive them to safety if disaster struck. As luck would have it, the levees held. But despite that scare, the state left much of its collection in those aging warehouses in the West Sacramento flood plain, where it has languished without adequate protection from heat and humidity.

"It's totally unacceptable," said Ross McGuire, a state museum curator.

PHOTOS: State parks artifacts

The state has at least 2 million artifacts, and roughly half are in the West Sacramento warehouses. This year they will find a new home in a relic of the Cold War.

Over the next three months, officials plan to finish moving everything to a cavernous building at the former McClellan Air Force Base north of Sacramento. There, McGuire said, thick concrete walls built to withstand a nearby nuclear blast will provide stronger protection at a cheaper price. The building is already starting to resemble the warehouse from the final scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with boxes upon boxes lined up along shelves reaching toward the ceiling.

The Department of Parks and Recreation is better known as the guardian of the state's forests and beaches. But it has also been a voracious collector of California relics — so voracious, in fact, that the state packed its warehouses to the brim with more artifacts than it knows what to do with.

The overwhelming size and substandard storage of the collection was cited last week by the Little Hoover Commission in a report detailing problems at the parks department, which has suffered scandals and financial problems in the last year.

Stashed away are dug-out canoes made from redwoods along California's northern coast, the wedding dress worn by a surviving member of the doomed Donner party and one of the country's most important collections of Native American baskets.

In the words of one former parks official, the department is the state's attic.

Take, for example, a life-sized portrait of John Sutter, a pioneer who played a crucial role in California's Gold Rush. The painting hung in the Capitol until renovations in the 1970s and '80s. Suddenly homeless, it was eventually taken to West Sacramento, where its gilded frame brings a touch of splendor to a drab warehouse interior.

"Nobody wants to throw that away yet," McGuire said. "It's an important historical piece. It will have a future."

Roughly 20% of the state's collection is on display across California, he said. (That's better than the typical museum, McGuire said, which usually displays 10%.)

Wendy Teeter, curator of archeology at UCLA's Fowler Museum, said the state's artifacts are an invaluable resource.

"There's a million stories being told throughout the state right now and a million stories left to be told," she said. "If you don't take care of that material, you don't have a way to tell the story."

Teeter said the state's decision to shift its storage to McClellan is exciting, not just because the artifacts will have better protection. It's an opportunity for rediscovery, she said, much like when someone finds long-lost possessions behind the couch while switching apartments.

"When you move, new objects come to light that may have been squirreled away," she said.

In fact, the state is in the midst of an extensive effort to catalog all of its holdings. Employees jot down details on sheets of paper all over the West Sacramento warehouse, then put the information into a central computer system, McGuire said.

Because the state began scooping up historical items in the late 19th century, there's a lot to sift through. The nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission, which advises lawmakers on policy issues, said the collection has become unwieldy, echoing its concern that the state expanded its network of parkland beyond its capacity to manage.

Blaine Lamb, the former parks official who referred to the department as the state's attic, told the commission that "the department had accepted too many artifacts that had no relevance to the state park system or its mission and that it had neither the staff nor the space to care for such an expanding accumulation."

The state is trying to thin its collection without haphazardly kicking anything to the curb. The department has limited new acquisitions, and McGuire said at least a thousand pieces have been handed over to local historical societies and educational institutes. He has only a small staff to manage the state's central storage of artifacts and the move to McClellan. There are three full-time employees, including himself, plus eight seasonal workers and about 25 students.

One part of the building at McClellan resembles a 19th century garage, with Gov. Leland Stanford's stagecoach and a horse-drawn hearse that played a key role in California history during the Civil War. Union supporters used the hearse to smuggle a cannon into Volcano, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and win a standoff with Confederate sympathizers who wanted to seize gold there.

When the state is fully settled in the new building, its cache of 4,500 Native American baskets will occupy a series of shelves stretching a full mile. Many of the baskets include intricate details, achieved through the use of different colored grasses, roots and feathers. The Oakland Museum recently commissioned a weaver to create a similar basket — it took her more than two years.

"If we didn't keep this together, this knowledge would be lost," McGuire said. "This is knowledge. This is heritage."

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