‘Night at the Museum’ offers first peek at Modesto natural history exhibits

Workers finishing the dioramas and exhibits at the Great Valley Museum pass the mountain lion exhibit in the Modesto Junior College Science Community Center on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.
Workers finishing the dioramas and exhibits at the Great Valley Museum pass the mountain lion exhibit in the Modesto Junior College Science Community Center on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.

Hammering, whirring drills and the scent of fresh rosin herald the finishing touches for the Great Valley Museum, in time for the Night at the Museum Inaugural Gala fundraiser Jan. 17.

While gala-goers will be able to tour the exhibits, the museum’s full opening will wait a few weeks longer as docents are trained and all the final pieces placed, said museum director Barry Bauer. “Things are hopping,” he said, speaking above the fray Wednesday.

“We have three crews working feverishly right now. It will not be 100 percent done by the gala, but it will be very close. It will be viewable by the attendees,” Bauer said.

The official opening will be – “fingers crossed” – the beginning of February, he predicted.

Soon after, big yellow buses will become a regular sight at the Modesto Junior College West Campus, unloading classes of schoolkids to see nature, up close and convenient.

“In the fall, we’ll be very busy, which is exciting, which is what we’ve been waiting so many years for,” Bauer said.

The wait has stretched from an original opening date in fall of 2012, to hopes for a spring of 2014 opening, to this month’s race to the finish. A number of problems stretched out construction, the most serious being an upgrade in the seismic bracing required, he said.

“It was set for museum standards, but because it was on a school (campus), it had to meet school standards,” Bauer said. The change caused an eight-month delay in construction, with a domino cascade of pauses as subcontractors rescheduled.

This week, those workers are putting in 12- to 14-hour days to finish the job.

“This is like my opus,” said habitat fabricator and taxidermist Michael Hartless.

Sitting in what will be a marshland exhibit, Hartless bound green native grasses with wheat-colored stalks as classic John Denver songs played in the background. The grasses will be anchored with nails to the risers, which will be flooded with resin swirled to mimic water. Dozens of critters from the museum’s collections will peek out at visitors from the exhibit. Realistic bird sounds will replace the 1970s soundtrack.

“We’re not replicating nature, we’re condensing it,” Hartless said. Every few feet, something new will be visible – a bug, a frog, a duck. Across from the marsh, a resin stream will flow from a beaver dam he built after watching an old nature show on beavers countless times, fretting through sleepless nights and sending up a prayer to the spirits of the American Indian side of his family.

“There’s no book that says how you make a beaver dam,” he said from his spot on the ground floor of the MJC Science Community Center. “There are two stories of biological experts above us, and they come in and everything has to be just right.”

The hallmark polar bear, a non-native species now watching the Science-on-a-Sphere exhibit at the northern end of the museum, had deteriorated to a dull orange when Hartless took charge of restoring it last year. An alcohol bath and custom bleach job later, the bear stands a fierce, blond carnivore once again.

The discovery room still was a storage area Wednesday, but traveling teacher Loralee Crawford said it will be filled with with hands-on exhibits. Drafted to help mount grasses, Crawford said the idea is to keep kids interested. “We’ll be changing it out continuously, so every time you come back to the museum, there will be different things to see and do and take off shelves.”

Shelves for exhibits are the purview of Steven Gyford, who designed and built the display cases with pipelike fittings he has custom made from aircraft aluminum. The see-through cases have plexiglass interior parts but an exterior of shaped glass – making it easier to clean finger smudges, he said.

The Great Valley Museum’s earliest exhibits filled a bus, created by enthusiastic instructors to travel to schools, said museum specialist Molly Flemate. In 1980, the museum took over a 1940s bookstore at the southeast corner of the MJC East Campus, adding adjacent buildings and a native plant garden over time. The old site closed in August.

The museum is a partnership of Modesto Junior College, which employs its staff, and the Great Valley Museum Foundation, which helps fund its operations. The gala is a foundation fundraiser. Besides the $150 dinner event ticket, attendees will be asked to help fund special projects, sponsor exhibits, give scholarships for school trips or augment traveling teacher programs, Bauer said.

Word of the museum’s impending opening has phones ringing through the day, Flemate said, adding that the new digs are just what the founders wanted to build.

“It’s a great step forward from the little museum at the corner of Stoddard and College (avenues),” Flemate said. “This is what their dream was. This was where they wanted to go.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.



The Great Valley Museum’s “Night at the Museum – the Inaugural Gala”


Social hour, tours and a planetarium show will begin at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m., on Jan. 17


The museum’s new home on the main floor of the Modesto Junior College Science Community Center, west campus, 2201 Blue Gum Ave.


The original director of the museum, Joe Medeiros, will speak on its history. Modesto Poet Laureate Gillian Wegener will read a poem written for the event. MJC English Professor Lillian Villee will give a reading. Cost is $150. For more, call the Great Valley Museum at (209) 575-6196 or, starting Jan. 12, the MJC Foundation Office at (209) 575-6619.