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Column: San Diego Museum Month: Why it’s the perfect ticket to your hometown adventure

Whether they have come to see the petite pistols, the darling dollhouses or the astounding Paul and Paula Knapp miniature-engine collection, visitors to the the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad generally have the same reaction. Which can best be summed up as, “Whoa.”

“We have 1,500 exhibits,” curator and general manager Terry Miller said of the under-the-radar museum and its many display cases of wonder. “We have functional working miniatures of all kinds of vehicles, from automobiles and cranes to steam engines. We have dollhouses and a section full of architectural models. We have a 1/6 scale model of a 1932 Duesenberg with a running engine, transmission, steering and electrical, with over 6,000 handcrafted parts built from scratch.

“The common response from people when they come in is, ‘Oh my gosh, how do people do this?’”

If you are in the mood to be charmed, amazed and educated by places like the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum, San Diego Museum Month is here to help you expand your horizons without leaving the county.

After being a mostly virtual event in 2021, San Diego Museum Month is back for your in-person enjoyment. For the month of February, it will offer half-off admission to more than 45 museums, historical sites, zoos, gardens and aquariums. San Diego County residents can pick up their free passes at any local Macy’s store and at more than than 75 public libraries.

Each pass can be used for up to four half-priced admissions at any of the participating organizations, a lineup that includes a little bit of everything that makes San Diego special.

“We have everything from the (California) Surf Museum in Oceanside to more traditional places like the NAT (the San Diego Natural History Museum),” said Bob Lehman, executive director of the San Diego Museum Council, which organizes Museum Month. “But we also have the Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista and the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, which are more about animal experiences. If you go to the Model Railroad Museum, there is so much inside. And the Japanese Friendship Garden (in Balboa Park), which is just a beautiful oasis in the middle of the city.

“I have been in San Diego since 1984, and I had no idea. It’s pretty amazing to find out how many there are and that they are everywhere.”

From Oceanside to Imperial Beach, from the high-tech exhibits at the Fleet Science Center to the ancient offerings at the San Diego Archaeological Center, the Museum Month participants are all over the geographical and cultural map. And while some of these institutions offer free admission all year round, Museum Month gives its less well-known members the invaluable chance to be part of something big.

“Anytime people in San Diego think about museums, they think about Balboa Park. This elevates us and brings us up to the level of the bigger museums,” said Laurie Egan-Hedley, director and curator of the Barona Cultural Center and Museum in Lakeside. “For us, Museum Month means being on the radar and showing people we exist. Even if you don’t visit, you have seen the name and you know about us.”

But if you do visit, you will leave knowing a lot more about the county you call home.

The Barona Cultural Center and Museum’s collections of art, artifacts, photographs, books and historical documents is dedicated to exploring and celebrating the local Kumeyaay-Diegueño Native culture and to illuminating a history that was more than 10,000 years in the making. The museum also celebrates what is happening with Southern California’s Indigenous populations right now.

“One thing we focus on is having ancient artifacts to talk about what life used to be like side-by-side with what is happening with language loss and cultural preservation,” Egan-Hedley said. “We get so many visitors in who say, ‘Are the Indians still alive? Do they still live in teepees?’ It’s a daily education job for us.”

Whether you want to revisit an Old Master at the San Diego Museum of Art or check out the new blooms at the San Diego Botanic Garden, Museum Month is your ticket to hometown adventure. Even if all you want to do is get out of your head.

If that is your chosen destination, head for Imperial Beach, where the serene salt marshes, abundant birds and picturesque hiking trails of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve await.

“We’re definitely a hidden gem. We are surrounded by development on three sides, so even people who live in I.B. don’t know we’re here,” said Anne Marie Tipton, the reserve’s education coordinator.

“There is something about being around a marsh that is very calming. The reserve isn’t a busy place, so you won’t be surrounded by a million people. From seeing the brush rabbits to the lizards and the birds, there is something for people of all ages to enjoy.”

For information about San Diego Museum Month, including a guide to museums in your neighborhood, go to the San Diego Museum Council’s website, sandiegomuseumcouncil.org