News Column

The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif., Cassie MacDuff column

July 28, 2014

By Cassie MacDuff, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.



July 28--After the departure last spring of San Bernardino County Museum's respected longtime director, Robert McKernan, county supervisors seemed poised to slash the museum's budget.

They wanted the region's natural history museum to be self-supporting through fees.

Already, the museum had lost 85 percent of its staff in downsizing. Volunteers man the front counter and work-release prisoners do the groundskeeping on weekends.

An interim director was appointed in March, and the Board of Supervisors relented on funding cuts in June, setting a $3.1 million budget, similar to past years.

But a recent lawsuit revealed a dispute at the core of the museum's travails.

After spending $6.7 million to build a Hall of Geological Wonders, and close to $3 million to outfit it with fossils and full-sized models of prehistoric beasts, the county has little to show the public.

The much-anticipated, 12,000-square-foot hall was completed in 2009. But it has sat empty and unused except for a few invitation-only fundraisers and the annual National Fossil Day in October.

Now the county is suing the design firm that was supposed to produce the replica beasts. Instead, the firm delivered boxes of bones unassembled, the lawsuit alleges.

No one can explain why the new hall was allowed to languish for five years before the county took action July 11 against Platypus Studios, the Pasadena firm hired to design and build mastodons, a velociraptor, a miocene horse and other creatures.

The company also failed to produce a "time tube" showing geological eras and a display showing how tectonic plates created the continents, according to the suit.

As much as $1 million in county money and $1.9 million from a California Cultural and Historic Endowment grant may have been paid to Platypus. The county doesn't have a full accounting.

San Bernardino County supervisors weren't happy. The museum's budget was threatened with drastic cuts.

In March, McKernan resigned without explanation. Reached by phone on Friday, he declined to comment.

But without McKernan at the helm, the museum's nonprofit board worried that the priceless collections of preserved birds, eggs and textiles would be allowed to degrade, and the museum could lose its accreditation, vital for getting grants and exhibits on loan from other museums.

County supervisors appointed County Librarian Leonard Hernandez as interim museum director. Soon afterward, they voted to sue Platypus.

After uncovering more missing exhibits, broken video monitors and a water feature with a non-functioning pump, county lawyers filed the suit this month.

Reached by phone, Platypus President Richard Valencia said he and his lawyer are still reviewing the allegations. He said he might pursue an insurance claim to cover part of it. He declined to comment further.

Valencia's lawyer Richard Ashbran of Glendora said Platypus is a design firm; it hired a subcontractor to make the prehistoric animals.

When the county temporarily put the project on hold for lack of funds, Platypus had to halt the subcontractor's work, Ashbran said.

A year later, when the money was released and Platypus asked the subcontractor to resume work, it raised its price and wouldn't complete the models, Ashbran said.

For a year and a half, the county and Platypus tried to resolve the dilemma. Eventually, Platypus got the subcontractor to send parts so the models could be assembled at the museum.

County supervisors voted last month to give the museum $3.1 million for fiscal 2014-15, about the same as last year.

Last month, Hernandez hired Museum Management Consultants of San Francisco to evaluate the museum's operations, prepare it for accreditation in 2017 and create a strategy for its future.

Progress won't stop in the meantime.

The staff and consultants plan three exhibits for the coming year with existing collections: "Fossils Underfoot," presenting current artifacts in a new manner; "Pioneers, Mountain People and Outlaws," highlighting San Bernardino history; and an as-yet unnamed exhibit of Navajo and Hopi blankets and rugs, Hernandez said.

He hopes to open the first floor of the Hall of Geological Wonders with several exhibits that were delivered, Hernandez said.

That way the public can see some of what it paid for. Perhaps that will inspire donors to contribute money to finish the project.

Hernandez also is recruiting a history curator.

In September, Museum Management Consultants is expected to present its findings and recommendations, said Supervisor James Ramos, whose district includes the museum.

Then the Board of Supervisors will have a study session to review the results, make decisions about the museum's future, including plans to grow and improve it, and begin the search for a permanent director, Ramos said.

The supervisors are fully engaged and committed to the museum's stability, he said, pointing to the renewed funding.

Ramos hopes the museum will become a valued attraction for residents, where they can learn about the origins of the place they live.

Association board member Allan Griesemer said he's encouraged at the steps being taken to restore the museum, and Hernandez's promise to include the nonprofit board in discussions about its future. But he said the $3.1 million budget figure is misleading because $1.8 million goes back to the county for overhead.

"They're a long ways from bringing the museum back to where it should be," he said.

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Contact the writer: 951-368-9470 or cmacduff@PE.com

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(c)2014 The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.)

Visit The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.) at www.PE.com

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