Alpine County Museum director is retiring |

Alpine County Museum director is retiring

Asa Embree

Bringing order out of chaos is Nancy Thornburg’s specialty.

When she started working as director of the Alpine County Museum in 1987, there were no facilities for archival storage of artifacts, no catalog system for the collection and no reliable security system. The collection and exhibits had outgrown the space available in the original museum building.

Now, after 10 years of hard work and perseverance, everything in the museum is cataloged and stored in a system that meets national standards. All museum procedures have been put into a manual. The security system was replaced with “state of the art” equipment. A new wing has been built, greatly enlarging exhibit, storage, and work space.

Nancy’s husband Fritz donated $7,000 in time and equipment to dig a basement. A shed has been constructed to allow storage for larger artifacts, including a fire engine and restored buggy.

When a grant was approved in order to pay for a Museum Assessment Program, the Alpine Museum was treated to an expert critique.

“We received a glowing evaluation,” said Nancy.

Chaos has been vanquished; order has been achieved.

After her retirement from the position on June 30, the museum will be faced with more changes. Once free from the duties of museum director, Nancy plans to organize her own family history, write, garden and travel.

“I have allowed the job to become very intrusive into my personal life, and while that’s nobody’s fault but my own, I need to reestablish a personal life,” she said.

Why is history important enough to warrant such expenditure of her time and energy?

“Alpine County is a peculiar community in many ways, and to a large extent I think it always has been,” she said. “In most ways, it represents the antithesis of order and organization. It is myopic in its understanding of its past and in its perception of its future, and I believe that if people understood the community’s history, including its strengths and its weaknesses, its triumphs and its failures, it wouldn’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again and, hopefully, more rational planning for its future would follow. I think we all need to understand our history in order to have some sense of how we fit in, why we are even here at all, and what positive differences our lives can make,” Nancy said.

The Spicer exhibit is one of her favorites. It contains some of the oldest human artifacts found in North America. A team of archeologists found a petroglyph, as well as many primitive tools. The artifacts were excavated at Spicer Reservoir. Nancy worked very hard to make the museum their permanent home.

“I think it is a very exciting collection and a fascinating window into a previously unknown part of Alpine County history,” she said.

Her education and interests have uniquely prepared her for the position of museum director. She was born in Martinez, Calif. and attended school in Piedmont. A graduate of University of California at Davis, she holds a bachelor of arts in history, a minor in English and a general elementary teaching credential. She met her husband Fritz Thornburg at Davis. They were married in 1958. Fritz is a former Alpine County supervisor. He has been very involved in the workings of the museum.

“I could not have done this job without his help all the way through,” said Nancy. They have three daughters. Becky is a critical care nurse, Jenny is a geologist, and Nani works in the Alpine County auditor’s office.

Nancy helped form the Alpine County Historical Society in 1963 when all museum-related work was done on a volunteer basis. This included moving the jail building to the museum complex, restoring the Webster School and building the core section of the museum itself. She has been inspired by several history professors and by her grandmother, who involved her in genealogical research.

Her actual approach to her work was influenced by her father who believed deeply in organization and logic. Both her parents taught her that if a job is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well. Her accomplishments exemplify this philosophy.

Diane Brigham, Alpine County librarian, says, “Nancy has been an invaluable resource person, and I will miss being able to call on her at the museum, especially for research questions involving Alpine County history. I visit many small museums and Alpine County’s is impressive, thanks to the efforts of Nancy Thornburg and the historical society. I know Nancy will continue to make contributions to Alpine County. She really won’t be retiring, but moving on to new challenges and opportunities.”

Nancy believes that the museum’s primary roles are “to collect, preserve and interpret documents and artifacts which represent our community’s history and its people and to convey that information through exhibits, educational programs, research and publication and any other means at our disposal.”

She has achieved all this and more. The museum is a shining example of dedication, efficiency, and organization. Her years of effort are not only a real benefit to the present population of Alpine County but to the generations that will follow.

Editor’s note: Asa Embree is a resident of Markleeville.