Next to the clothing stores hawking their brand of glamour, by the broken dreams of the boarded-up buildings and behind the hurried streets of downtown Bakersfield lies an oasis of American ingenuity and curiosity.
“What kind of animal skin do you think this is?”
The kids of Pam Angell’s summer camp at the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History on Chester Avenue hollered their answers recently. It turned out to be a red kangaroo pelt.
Angell’s camp-room is an explosion of science and a wonderful disaster of kids learning to love learning. Glitter covers everything. A redheaded kid in the corner is fascinated by his sticky frog toy.
“Can you find an igneous rock, Kiarra?” Angell asks.
Kiarra leaps out of her chair. She bounds up the stairs, past the dinosaur bones and the sharks’ teeth to make her discovery.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Kiarra?”
“Well, maybe a teacher.”
After rooting around the Native American campsite, Kiarra finds the rock, Angell in tow. The rock is black and smooth. She touches it. They discuss.
They stop in the black-light room, where some rocks fluoresce under special light.
“Is the light working today?”
According to a sign by the stuffed bears, deer, and bobcats, the average operating cost of the museum is $263 per day, $10.96 per hour and 18 cents per minute. The museum is run entirely by donations, and it’s heartbreaking to see youthful curiosity squashed by funding.
“If one rich man would come in here and say ‘name this the Paul Smith Museum and your financial troubles are over,’ we would still do this,” Dr. David Handley said pointing at his students, as he was swarmed by boys holding millipedes, cockroaches, and tarantulas.
In Handley’s class the boys are making “home-grown zoos,” or cages to keep and study critters that the museum gives the boys to take home every week.
Somehow his room is even wilder than Angell’s.
Cockroaches are a big hit, and one boy is busy hot-gluing dead ones to his hat.
“I named my millipedes Mr. Mime and Mime Junior, because they act like mimes,” one boy says. “Do you want to see a black widow spider?”
Apparently, meal worms grow up to be beetles, and Handley pops one in his mouth.
“It’s OK, they don’t have spines.”
You don’t have to ask if he loves his job. But really it’s not a job. He’s a volunteer. Angell volunteers also, along with almost everyone else there. The museum has only one part-time employee.
“These classes are a prime example of the fact that a museum is not a place where you look at old bones sitting in glass cases,” says museum board president Jack Turnbull. “This requires people to participate.”
It’s an adventure, an exploration. And it’s right downtown.