The Chamber of Commerce at Kern Pioneer Village is one of the first buildings visitors see, with its welcoming doors seeming to beckon them inside. But for years guests would have to keep walking right past the building to actually get to the grounds. Now, after years of work, guests can finally pull open those doors (if they're not already open) and walk inside through the entrance the museum deserves.
The Aera Gallery and Welcome Center, featuring cool informational pods on local topics like oil and mining, migration and agriculture, is officially open. Its completion follows that of the new Bakersfield Californian Foundation Research Center, but as always, work at the museum is never done. More projects and events are in the works, and the Workin' Man festival — named for Bakersfield's own Merle Haggard — is coming in April.
"I'm just thrilled because I had a vision for the museum when I came on board," said Zoot Velasco, chief executive officer of the museum. "That vision is now coming to fruition. I'm really excited about how it's turning out."
The welcome center, which has been in the works since before Velasco started his position in July of last year, orients guests on what they'll see inside the museum, giving historical context to the museum's many buildings and exhibits. Sheryl Barbich, secretary of the museum's board of trustees, oversees many of the museum's ongoing projects, including the welcome center.
The board started dreaming up plans for an orientation center back in 2013, with the project officially starting in May 2015, Barbich said. It was supposed to be finished in six months. To say its completion is a relief is an understatement.
"Originally, how this all got started, there was discussion of building a brand new building that would be an orientation for the museum," said Barbich, adding that the museum went that direction for about nine months before deciding to work within the Chamber of Commerce building.
When guests walk in, they'll first see a welcome pod, which is an introduction to the rest of the pods in the center. A screen showing videos sits atop a display case filled with historical items, like a book by Blanche Weill, old toys and Merle Haggard's childhood baseball bat and mitt. On the other side of this pod is a timeline of Kern County's history.
Within the migration pod are artifacts illustrating the different people who have come to Kern County, including early Chinese and African-American settlers and those who came during the Gold Rush and Dust Bowl. A pod on agriculture has information on the county's top crops and the labor struggle of farm workers. Another important local industry gets its own pod, with a display on oil and mining, a kind of prelude to the Black Gold exhibit in the museum, Velasco said. Soon, a sports and entertainment pod will be added.
The pods were chosen based on what has been important in Kern County's story, Barbich said. The artifacts displayed in them were previously stored away and rarely seen by the public. Over time, some of the items might be swapped out for others.
"The whole idea was to first showcase our history and then bring in artifacts that nobody sees because they were in the basement," she said.
With one executive director leaving and another coming in over the course of the project, Barbich was a constant, said Velasco, adding that she's done "an amazing job" overseeing the project and getting funding.
"It was kind of dizzying for me showing up as the new director, hearing that we have 20 different projects at one time," Velasco said. "My head was going to explode, thinking of all the things we're doing at the same time. Sheryl has been helpful taking on the bulk of those projects."
Although the research and welcome centers are the result of projects that predated Velasco's arrival, the new weekly programming is all Zoot.
"In the past, sometimes the museum would get in a trap of one big festival" that it would rely on for funding, he said. "That's not the best way of serving our mission. I'd rather have more small (events)."
Starting this month, there's something going on every Wednesday at the museum: the first Wednesday of the month is a dance night, the second is a historic lecture night, the third is Kids Village and the fourth is adults-only night. The series kicked off with swing dancing on Feb. 1, which was well-attended considering how new and unpublicized the event was, Velasco said.
Dance nights will include Latin dancing on March 1, country dancing on April 5 and '80s dancing on May 3. The next historic night will be a lecture on "Gunslingers, Madams and Horse Thieves" by museum curator Lori Wear, who will also talk about "Streets of Bakersfield: The Origin of Street Names" on April 12 and "Kern County's Historic Architecture" on May 10.
Kids Village starts with Puppet Day on Feb. 15 and March 15, with "The '52 Quake: A Moving Tale" on April 15 and Photo Safari days on April 19 and May 17. For that last event, kids will learn how to take pictures around the museum and how to edit them in Photoshop in the Chevron Maker Annex.
Some kids activities will happen on Saturdays as well, like living history days, train days and movie at the museum days. Many activities will focus on STEAM, or learning science, technology, engineering and math through art and, in the museum's case, history.
The first adult night will be "Kern County in the Movies" on Feb. 22, where movies filmed in the county will screen in the Black Gold Hippodrome Theater. A storytelling night will follow on March 22 and a Kern County trivia night on April 26, both in Fellows Hotel. On May 24, a wine and paint night will be held in Standard School.
Most weekly events are free with admission to the museum, making them totally free for museum members. Some, like the paint night, will include an additional fee.
"It feels good to be doing all these events that are really community-oriented," Velasco said. "They all have ties back to our mission of celebrating our culture and history."
The mission's emphasis on celebrating Kern County is new, Velasco said, adding that it came about after a conversation with Wear.
"Lori said a lot of people leave Bakersfield and talk bad about Bakersfield elsewhere, so people get the idea that it's not a good place to be from," he said. "Our mission is to make people feel good to be from here."
Velasco came to California from New York, but although he's not from here himself, he doesn't see Bakersfield as an outsider might and appreciates all that is unique about Bakersfield, its people and its culture, he said. It helps that he lived here 22 years ago while working for Wasco State Prison, heading a prison arts program.
To allow guests new and veteran alike the chance to see all that's new at Kern Pioneer Village, the museum is holding an open house on Sunday.
"It's for anybody and everybody that's interested in what's going on here," Velasco said.
Whether they come for the open house or another day, guests at the museum can now enjoy a new audio tour, thanks to a series of podcasts Velasco recently recorded, with individual files on each building in the village. For fastest download time, he recommends guests save the episodes to their phones before coming to the museum. The podcast can be found on the museum's website.
In April, another long-term project will come to fruition: the completion of Merle Haggard's childhood boxcar home. Its opening will be one part of the multi-day, citywide Workin' Man Festival: A Celebration of Merle Haggard and Country Music. First Friday, the Fox Theater and other local institutions are planning Haggard-themed events during the week, Velasco said.
Further down the road, the museum will open a transportation exhibit and continue to find businesses and organizations to sponsor buildings for its "Adopt-An-Artifact" program.
Velasco is excited about all the new things going on at the museum and is encouraged that things are going well so far.
"All the things we've planned have been rolling out in a really good way," he said.