In 1883, the first electric lighting system using overhead wires, built by Thomas Edison, began service in Roselle, New Jersey; "Buffalo Bill" Cody put on his fist Wild West Show; Brooklyn Bridge was opened by President Chester Arthur and New York Governor Grover Cleveland; Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia erupted, killing thousands; and "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson was first published as a book.

Also in 1883, the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History was born in a small wooden octagonal building on the site that is now Jewell Park, across the street from the current Museum. When it opened it doors that year, it was among the first wave of natural history museums in America.

Renowned naturalists of that era, including John Muir and Louis Aggasiz, began a national tradition of hands-on science education and the preservation of nature that continues today. And for the past 135 years, the Museum has been showcasing the birds and wildlife, plants, geology, and cultural richness that make the California Central Coast so unique in the world.

The Museum’s long history is inextricably linked to the very history of the city of Pacific Grove itself.

In 1855, Point Pinos Lighthouse was constructed, heralding the beginning of Pacific Grove’s development. But it wasn’t until 1875 that Pacific Grove came into its own as a community and city. That year, the Pacific Land Improvement Company pledged approximately 100 acres of prime land to the Methodist Episcopal Church in order to create the West Coast’s first Chautauqua retreat.

This Christian seaside resort was to be modeled after the one established in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. In 1879, the first camp meeting was held for the West Coast’s chapter of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.

Pacific Grove’s reputation for fresh sea air, beautiful pine trees and charming butterfly migrations began to draw crowds to this Chautaqua retreat for mediation and rest, becoming an important part of this nationwide education network.

Several members of the Chautaqua felt the need to have a storeroom and exhibition site to house their collections of nature’s wonders and to make them available to the public for study.

In 1883, a petition calling for a Museum building was signed by Professor H. B. Norton, Dr. J. H. Wyeth, Dr. C. L. Anderson, Miss Lucy M. Washburn, Miss Mary E. B. Norton, and Professor Josiah Keep. The petition was sent to F.S. Douty, secretary of the Pacific Improvement Company, and the Chautauqua Museum's first home was built in what is now Jewell Park.

By 1889, Pacific Grove was ready to establish itself as a full-scale community, and the town was formally incorporated that year, two years after its permanent post office was founded. Many of Pacific Grove’s streets received their names during this time, with multiple thoroughfares taking the names of prominent members of the original Pacific Grove Retreat Association.

In 1900, the Chautauqua Museum disbanded to form a more permanent organization as the Pacific Grove Museum Association. The Pacific Improvement Company donated the Museum’s current lot to the Association, and the Museum subsequently moved into a large building on its current site.

The Association maintained the Museum until 1916, when it was transferred to the City of Pacific Grove through a Charter election. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has accredited the Museum for 46 consecutive years, the first such institution in Monterey County and one of the first in the country to receive AAM accreditation.

Since 2009, the Museum Foundation of Pacific Grove has managed Museum collections, raised funds, developed programming, and has built a sustainable model for the operation of the Museum.

In early 2016, the board, staff and key stakeholders began a process to determine how to transform the Museum into a institution without walls, where services flow rather than just being a place people go. This required a change of thinking towards creating a community of users rather than focusing on visitors.

The Board adopted this ambitious strategic plan in July 2016, setting a five-year goal to accomplish this transformation. The major goals of this plan will move the Museum closer to its vision of inspiring a diverse community to explore and conserve the natural and cultural wonders of the Central California Coast. 

In keeping with this goal, the Museum’s programs have served over 10,000 local students during the past year. These include free field trips to the Museum with lessons ranging from monarch butterflies to bird adaptations. Schools visiting in the winter months are guided through the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary, where they witness the unique spectacle of clustered monarch butterflies. The Museum also provides hands-on science training for students through programs like LiMPETS and Watershed Explorers. In these programs, students are able to explore nature as they record important ocean and watershed health data. 

Beyond this marked uptick in school education programs, the Museum continues to offer community programs such as as the annual Wildflower Show, Science Saturdays, Hardcore Natural History, Night Owls, summer camps, garden strolls, book signings and more as it continues to be a hub for science, inquisitive learners, art and community in Pacific Grove.