Common Ground Garden Builds Bridges

By Meg Clovis

The Monterey County Agricultural & Rural Life Museum (MCARLM) is located at San Lorenzo Park in King City, CA—a rural community of 13,248 people in the southern Salinas Valley. The museum first opened its doors in 1983. The nucleus of the museum centers on large collection of farm equipment and artifacts that reflect over a century of farming in the Salinas Valley. These collections are exhibited in seven museum structures including an exhibit barn, blacksmith shop, one-room school, a 19th century farmhouse, a water education building and a tractor barn. We maintain an archival vault where researchers can access our large archival collection of documents and photographs.

We use our collections as a springboard to provide a variety of educational programs for elementary and middle school students including the Hands-on-History fieldtrip program, Hammer-In blacksmith program, and Junior Historians. Our newest addition to the museum complex is our Common Ground Garden—a venue for cross-curriculum education. In 2014 we served 21 schools and 1635 students—a 21% increase over 2013. The museum is open 6 days a week from 10:00 to 4:00 and welcomed over 6500 visitors this past year.

In 2013 MCARLM instituted our Common Ground Garden programs in partnership with the Greenfield Community Science Workshop (GCSW) and the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE). The Common Ground project was a departure from our established interpretive programs, which were centered on exhibitions, single-visit experiences and elementary school students. Common Ground’s participants are middle school students who participate in the program throughout the school year, meeting four days per month; twice after school and twice for garden workdays. Because 92% of the children who participate are considered economically disadvantaged (eligible for free and reduced lunch), it was important that the program was offered at no cost and transportation was provided.  

Common Ground’s objective was to teach students how to be environmental stewards of the earth through organic gardening.

A combination of resources made the program possible. First, MCARLM had the space to build a garden. Second, the GCSW had an established relationship with local schools as a trusted after-school program and could provide transportation. Finally, the UCCE’s Youth Community Science Program had a research-based, environmental science curriculum, the TWIGS curriculum, and the availability of student mentors through their Master Gardeners program. In addition, MCARLM solicited in-kind contributions such as seedlings, tools, compost and labor. Local grant funds were received to help support the program.

In 2014 MCARLM took the program one step further in partnership with the Casa K’inich Children’s Museum in Honduras, when together we applied for and received a Museums Connect grant. MCARLM shared the established program framework with the CKCM, following the same steps as the original 2013 program. Museums Connect expanded project goals to include learning about another culture and why environmental stewardship is important locally as well as globally. To facilitate cultural connections, students participate in four Skype chats during the year and exchange information as traditional pen pals. Additional connections are made by packing a Community Suitcase in each country, where students select objects that reflect their lives, their families, schools and neighborhoods. Each student is required to submit a family recipe using vegetables grown in the garden. These will be compiled into a cookbook at the end of the program.

In the face of California’s devastating drought and environmental challenges on all fronts, farmers in the Salinas Valley are more and more looking to organic agriculture as the responsible path to a sustainable future. Common Ground’s overarching goal—to teach environmental stewardship through organic gardening—responds to the educational needs of local students as they work towards becoming tomorrow’s leaders.

Common Ground brings an interdisciplinary approach to learning, mixing academic concepts with real-world lessons. With our Honduran partners, Common Ground makes a global society personal. Honduras is no longer a point on a map but real people in a real place with real ideas. Students have an opportunity to communicate, learn about each other and understand the interconnectedness of people, plants and our planet.

By “taking it outside” MCARLM, a traditional history museum, has exponentially expanded the organization’s relevance to the community and opportunities for continual evolution. Our organization has a small staff and a smaller budget. But by leveraging the resources we do have, building partnerships and knowing our audience we have built a program that could be replicated by even the smallest museums.

Common Ground recently received the Superintendent’s Award for Excellence in Museum Education, an annual competition sponsored by the CA. Superintendent of Public Instruction and the California Association of Museums.

Meg Clovis has served as Cultural Affair Manager for Monterey County Parks since 1981. She received a B.A. from Mills College in Art History and a M.A. from Boston University in Preservation Studies.



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