A museum in name only

Faculty seek to display the treasures of the Jaeger Museum.

As fierce in death as in life, a saber- toothed cat skeleton commands respect and space in the small Edmund C. Jaeger Museum. The space includes small rodents, birds, jungle cats, sea creatures and four additional saber-toothed cat skeletons. / photo by Hunter Cole

As fierce in death as in life, a saber- toothed cat skeleton commands respect and space in the small Edmund C. Jaeger Museum. The space includes small rodents, birds, jungle cats, sea creatures and four additional saber-toothed cat skeletons. / photo by Hunter Cole

by Christina Collins Burton
photography by Hunter Cole

Using all his weight, Robert Neher yanks open a third floor Mainiero Building door. The sound of warped wood rubbing against its frame mercifully ends; startingly, ahead is a well-lit room full of display cases housing precious artifacts. Bob, a seasoned professor of biology at the University of La Verne, immediately walks back to the west wall toward a display case filled to the brim with a cornucopia of stones—all sorts of stones, pink, purple, spiked, smooth. He fiddles with the electric plug to get the case lit. Suddenly animals, all stuffed, pop into view along the case’s wall. They stare blankly out at the collections. With only two isles dividing the collections (one partially blocked by a large safe, itself holding a precious basket collection), the space resembles more of a storage room than a museum. Bob is one of the few persons who knows where everything is. The valuable collections— shells, birds, baskets, minerals, bones—are held out of sight in the Edmund C. Jaeger Museum. Most are donated—from professors and persons outside the University. All contribute to research efforts. The Jaeger Museum itself is not really that—it lacks display qualities. With its one window on the south wall and flickering/buzzing florescent lights, the collections are locked in time, waiting for their moment.

Entering guests are watched over by a prominent photo of Jaeger, placed above the door. A bleached dog skeleton, given by one of Bob’s anatomy students, greets you at the door. Each artifact has a story, including this one: The Collie met its end with a car; Bob kept the over-achieving student’s class project. To the left, large birds of prey and two cranes leer out from a glass display case, their last expressions posed permanently in an “out-for-a-hunt” way. “All of them were collected humanely of course,” Bob assures guests who ask. A huge California Condor is perched in the corner space by the window, forever about to take flight. Because of how endangered the species is, the sight is a rare one. Its procurement history is only whispered about. Not only rare and beautiful collections are stored here but also antique calculators, scientific equipment and the iPads that the department uses for teaching.

Hidden away from the world

The original museum started as a teaching space in Founders Hall with only a few pieces used to facilitate classes. Edmund C. Jaeger, an American biologist, saw this and wanted the University to open a full museum to house the collections of professors and

donors alike. “It’s such an incredible resource the University already owns,” says Kimberly Martin, professor of anthropology. “We are committed to community engagement, and it’s a way to provide access to prehistory, natural history and cultural history for people in the community and for our students—if we just had the space to actually show and use it for classes.”

When the Mainiero Building was under construction, Jaeger donated money to help develop a teaching museum open to not only the sciences, but also the rest of the campus. His money went toward filling the space with the appropriate display materials to best show the pieces. The museum opened in 1967. However, as collection donations came in and space became precious, the Jaeger museum quickly became a science storage room. “A bunch of us have gotten together to figure out what we can do, and how we can make more space,” Bob says. “We also need more lab space so if we could move the museum into a larger area and consolidate what we have from science and what we have from anthropology and archeology, we could have a really beautiful museum which has very valuable pieces and collections.” Professors from the Biology Department have written a letter petitioning the administration for a designated space to be turned into a proper museum.

To help keep some museum pieces in the public’s eye, Mainiero Building hallway display cases have been utilized. The displays in the cases come from two collections, and for the past several years have not rotated. “When it boils down to it, no one wants to put in the time to change it out,” Bob explains. He says that picking the pieces and filling the cabinets is hard work. One such outside display case shows highlights of the Robert N. Hutcheson Indian basket collection. The rare collection continues with more than 100 baskets inside the Jaeger space and represents more than 36 tribes from the United States and Canada. It is a space gobbler. With the display cabinet in the hallway, there are three display cases along the north wall in the Jaeger Museum. The baskets are also propped up on top of the cases. The more valuable hand-size baskets are stacked together in the safe that blocks an aisle.

Among the notable but hidden items is a fully assembled saber-toothed cat specimen. Four other unassembled but complete saber-toothed cat specimens are University owned, thanks to a historic donation by J.Z. Gilbert, who taught at Los Angeles High School and often brought students to excavate at the tar pits. Later, Gilbert became a part-time teacher at then La Verne College. The tiger stands atop an extra desk that partially blocks an aisle. When a six-foot person walks by, she is face-to-face with the Tiger. Tucked under its legs are other artifacts: pieces of glass that were bounced off the moon when they were hit by meteorites, an out-dated computer and an old fashioned calculator. Beneath, sits a cardboard box. “That box is a whole collection we only get out when the family comes to look at it and then put it back again because we just can’t safely display it ,” Bob explains. The significant collection is a range of African artifacts donated 10 years ago by former African missionaries. Ask to see the collection, and the large west wall desk is cleaned off. There, the pieces are laid out across the entire surface. This is one of the last collections Bob accepted, even though new offers come to him. “We have several people who are anxious to donate more stuff, but we can’t display it properly. That, I think, is motivation for trying to find the right spot.”

An unsure future

With Bob Neher retiring this year, a Biology Department faculty successor has yet to be found who will support the Museum. “I probably won’t completely leave; I’ll probably still stick around and do some work,” Bob says with a smile. Senior biology major Diego Villalobos is sad to see the Museum space not fulfilling its potential. “There is a lot of history that a lot of students are missing out on in the Museum. I feel that someone would have to be paid almost full-time to find out exactly how much history is in there,” Diego says, shaking his head in disappointment. “It has bugged me for awhile; it’s just an amazing space, and I’m surprised it is still not being utilized.”

Dr. Robert Neher, longtime curator of the Jaeger Museum and chairman of the Natural Science Division,  sorts jars of animal samples. Neher retires this year, leaving the future of the museum uncertain. / photo by Hunter Cole

Dr. Robert Neher, longtime curator of the Jaeger Museum and chairman of the Natural Science Division, sorts jars of animal samples. Neher retires this year, leaving the future of the museum uncertain. / photo by Hunter Cole

Proper museum care

The Jaeger Museum is that in name only. “There’s been no real effort on anyone’s part to learn curational standards to ensure that the materials are well maintained,” says Felicia Beardsley, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Beardsley, a noted archaeologist who has traveled and performed significant research with Pacific tribes, says, “The idea behind curation is to ensure the integrity of the item is maintained, that it doesn’t get subject to heat, insects, mold or any other kind of air pollutants.” The Jaeger space is not regulated by a separate air system. The room’s humidity is controlled, and the pieces can be exposed to any number of environmental risks. “You need to know what kinds of materials are in a collection, what are the range of materials that exist, what are the conditions,” Beardsley says. “Those materials then have to be stored in a specific type of environment.” Close inspection validates Beardsley’s concerns. A leopard pelt, which Bob affectionately refers to as the department’s mascot, is routinely petted by the few children and students who visit the collections. Sprawled over a cabinet that also serves as counter space for statues and other random stuffed animals, the Leopard’s ears have begun to flake off in pieces because of how often it is stroked.

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