The University’s Cultural and Natural History Collections tell incredible stories under Felicia Beardsley’s leadership
by Jacquelyn Giambalvo
photography by Kaitlin Handler
Since 1891, a date that marks the start of the University of La Verne as Lordsburg Academy, the Cultural and Natural History Collections have been a hidden gem. With more than 100,000 natural history artifacts, and more being donated every month, the collection is impressively growing. The collection began with a tiny room in Lordsburg Academy, grew in a room in Founders Hall, and expanded in a classroom-sized-room room in the La Fetra Science and Education building. Until recently, the collection has been guarded and secured for future generations, with its leadership somehow, somewhere finding a place for every artifact in the ever-growing collection. While the collections have been mostly out of sight behind locked doors. Felicia Beardsley, Ph.D., University of La Verne professor and chair of Anthropology, and director of the Cultural and Natural History Collections Museum, is motivated to bring it forward for all to see and to work with.
Dr. Beardsley brings solid credentials to the task. She is recognized as the lead Pacific Island anthropologist by the United States government and has conducted work on the islands for more than 30 years. She is part of a team that added Nan Madol in Micronesia to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) World Heritage List. She appears frequently in documentary shows as an expert commentator.
Apart from her own exciting research, Dr. Beardsley says she is impressed by what she has found in ULV’s historic collection. She tells of the significant holdings in the University of La Verne Cultural and Natural History Collections. The museum has rare meteoroids and tektites donated from the man considered the “Father of Meteoritics.” The museum holds donated minerals from Don Howser, who had two collections from around the world. He gave one collection to the Smithsonian Museum and his personal collection to the University of La Verne.
Some of the museum’s holdings are on display. On the second floor of the University of La Verne Campus Center is a fully articulated sabre-toothed tiger that was donated to Lordsburg College in 1916 by J.Z. Gilbert, who first started doing research in the Los Angeles tar fields. Gilbert pulled many prehistoric bones out of the La Brea tar muck and assembled five fully articulated cats. He was a part-time teacher at then-named Lordsburg College and gave one articulated skeleton to La Verne. Dr. Beardsley says for two years she enjoyed restoring the sabre-toothed tiger in her office. She laughs as she tells that Gilbert did the best he could in his first restoration of the unknown ancient creature. He assembled the cat during a time when no one knew what it looked like. “We now know he attached a Dire Wolf tail to the cat. Archeologists have since discovered that the cats had bobbed tails.” She saw this as a learning opportunity by keeping Gilbert’s wolf tail attached to the skeleton, with the story in the display case that tells how understanding of the tail shape evolved with new scientific findings.
The restoration of old artifacts is a meticulous job, and it requires much patience and a steady hand to put together broken pieces. Dr. Beardsley also cleans them very carefully so she does not break the artifacts. She wears big magnifying visors to see the tiny details of what she is working with, while using super fine dental picks to ensure nothing is damaged.
The museum holds a beautiful collection of Native American baskets that were donated to the University upon the collector’s death. Dr. Beardsley says the baskets were covered in big white paint names. “It takes a lot of experimentation on what to use to carefully clean these baskets without ruining them.” Depending on the basket and its materials, she uses distilled water, alcohol or paint thinner and makes sure she does not damage the originals. Dr. Beardsley says the University has clear and legal ownership of the baskets. “My favorite baskets are the ones that actually show the repair work to make sure that this basket could keep being workable and useable for several years.” Collecting artifacts is a sensitive task. For example, if a museum has Native American artifacts gained through illegal means, they should be returned. She notes that museums are allowed to have skeletal remains of non-Native Americans but not Native Americans, which must be returned to a tribe for respectful burial.
There are many significant scientific collections in the Cultural and Natural History Collection museum, including insect collections and a botanical herbarium from students in the 1920s – 1950s who became prominent botanists. “You see this early, amazing work of these botanists,” she says. The museum has a growing Southeast Asia collection that has a very specific time period that represents the Vietnam War era. Included are documents from the journey of a refugee and others working in a non-military role during the Vietnam War. There is also a very small map that helped guide a boat from Vietnam to Malaysia for so-called “boat people” escaping the communist regime. There is also a test pilot helmet that was used by a person testing atomic bombs during the Cold War. “There are many fossils from fossil fields that do not exist anymore, and taxidermy birds that also do not exist anymore.” The museum has many “odd-ball” objects such as mourning hair. When someone wanted to remember a loved one, they would take the deceased person’s hair and save it to create pictures. “There are many phenomenal things in many respects,” Dr. Beardsley says.
The University’s museum is more well-known outside of the school than inside. Some artifacts have been a regular exhibit at the LA County Fair for three years and used in Fairplex programs. “The community has more knowledge of what we have than people within the school,” she says.
Dr. Beardsley worked in the Pacific with cultures and communities who have a long history on the islands. Their ancestors settled on these islands, and she at first worked with oral histories that capture the history of their ancestors. Dr. Beardsley says she is the first person to document their oral histories. She continues her work in that area. At her 15-year mark, Dr. Beardsley identified a number of cultural traits and patterns no one knew about, which were not easily evident in their oral history. She and her team identified objects that were not yet discovered, and she gained credit for documenting them on the islands. She discovered statues where there were not known to be any statues on the islands. “I asked my native crew what they thought about their history, and their role in making their history, and how they feel about that.” When she started her anthropological research, she did not know what type of artifacts they were going to find. Upon discovery of new cultural artifacts, “They shook their heads, and the main spokesman said, ‘We don’t know what to think; we’re not sure what to say.’” As a lesson from her work in the Pacific, Dr. Beardsley believes museums have no right to take artifacts off the islands because they belong to island cultures. However, if there is no cultural association with an artifact, or if it is 10,000 years old or more and is purely prehistoric, she believes under those circumstances outside museums should have a right to hold those items and take care of them. In that instance, those artifacts can exist for others in the future to study, to exam and to learn something from them.
She has gone through many crazy situations working in her field, especially on islands with reduced cultural respect for women in leadership roles. One time, she was the first archeologist allowed back into the Republic of Palau by the United States government because of her specialty in stone architecture. She said everyone from the President of the island, on down through his cabinet, through every director in the government pointed fingers at her, making sure she did her job correctly. She was even threatened by the “gangster of the country” that if she did not do her job correctly in the specific time period, she was “going to be fed to the crocodiles” in Palau. “I’ve been threatened by being fed to crocodiles, by machetes. One guy held a machete standing above me on my desk.” Her recent research studies the archaeoacoustics aspects of specific sites, which is a new field that looks at sound patterns in architecture.
Dr. Beardsley continues to make expert commentary appearances on the History Channel show “Ancient Aliens.” She talks about the ancient civilization on Nan Madol and her archeological perspective. “There are people who believe that real people do not have the capacity or ability to create these massive, amazing brilliant sights, yet they did. I never understood why aliens had to do it.” When she started her archaeological work on Easter Island, she heard the rumors that aliens created those famous statues. Dr. Beardsley said she can see every aspect of how those statues were built, the effort they put in, and the roads they were dragged on. She believes people have the ability and power to make these statues and do not need an alien-connected theory to explain it. When she films for these History Channel documentaries, the production people rent out a person’s house and use that as the set. Her most recent interview was during the COVID pandemic so she was fully socially distanced and masked. The interviewer was behind the camera while Dr. Beardsley held the set of questions in her hand and was told which questions to answer. Her interviews, which display a graphic telling her name and the University of La Verne, promotes the University and gives it a huge positive boost.
Dr. Beardsley says as much as the museum loves gaining donations of artifacts, it is currently funded by donations and “would love to gain more donations from people.” The museum’s doors are open to everyone by appointment, with community groups touring it, including pre-pandemic visits by the Boy Scouts, who want to learn about bugs, and how they are pinned. “History doesn’t stop at any one point; you always have to think about audiences, students and people using historical collections 50 years from now,” she says.