The Natural History Museum in San Diego, California, aims to bring together education and the natural world. It teaches visitors about the world we live in through its fascinating exhibits. The original goal of the museum was “to educate and help people know and love nature”, and it has continued this mission. Exhibits on respecting and learning about the world are strong themes running throughout the collections of this museum.



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In 1874, the San Diego Society of Natural History founded the Natural History Museum, making it one of the oldest scientific institutions in California; in 1912, the society opened its first museum in a single room. In 1917, the society moved to a vacant building in Balboa Park after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and this is still its present location. It functioned as a museum until World War 2, when the building was used as a hospital. Once the war ended, the building was converted back into the Natural History Museum, and is now a center for biodiversity research and environmental science education.

Many of the exhibits at the museum are constantly changing, giving visitors a new experience each time they visit. The goal of these exhibits is to emphasize and display the natural diversity in both the region of San Diego and the world as a whole. Currently, some of these exhibits include Baja’s Wild Side, Ultimate Dinosaurs, Coast to Cactus in Southern California, Water: A California Story, and Skulls. Baja’s Wild Side is a collection of photographs on the subject of California’s Pacific coast, captured by marine biologist Dr. Dan Cartamil. Ultimate Dinosaurs is an exhibit that combines modern technology and the prehistoric world to give a new perspective on dinosaurs. Coast to Cactus in Southern California is a permanent exhibit that examines the biodiversity existing among the coastal wetlands, urban canyons, mountains, and desert. The Skulls exhibit is a collection of almost 200 skulls of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles from around the world.

Due to the ever-changing nature of the museum, there are a few past exhibits that should be mentioned, such as the Photo Ark, Whales: Giants of the Deep, and Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed. The Photo Ark was an exhibit on the images of National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore. In the museum, 30 of these photos were on display to educate visitors on different animal species. Whales: Giants of the Deep was an interactive and immersive exhibit that featured an up-close experience with whales. Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed focused on the findings of archaeologists in ancient Maya in regards to the social, natural, and spiritual realms in this ancient society, showing viewers this hidden world from the perspectives of the kings, queens, and regular people in the society.

A future exhibit coming to the museum in November 2017 is Shelved: Big, Small, Beautiful, Bizarre. This collection will allow visitors to explore the “storage areas” of the museum. It will have a little bit of everything in it, from massive whalebones to beetles and coral. It is meant to be an example of the hidden wonders that can be found within the collection of a museum.

There are many different events for families and for the general public on offer at the Natural History Museum. For families, there are summer and winter camps geared towards using the natural world to educate children. From September through May there are monthly family days that include family-friendly activities in new exhibits. There is also Nature & Me Storytime, which is an opportunity for children to hear stories about nature through readings and exhibits. Events available to the public include NATtalks and Films, Take a Hike, and whale watching. NATtalks and Films are when experts and researchers come to educate the audience on specific topics related to the museum. The Natural History Museum also has many opportunities outside of the building to learn about nature, and both whale watching and hiking are offered by the museum as a way for the public to learn about and enjoy the environment.

Education is one of the founding principles of the Natural History Museum and many different school programs are offered. For classes of students there are lessons on bio-diversity, while the Bio-regional Environmental Education Project is a program between the U.S. and Mexico that teaches environmental education in the bio-region of Southern California and the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. The museum also has a wide variety of educational resources in different media to help inspire and teach.

1788 El Prado, CA 92101, Phone: 619-232-3821

Back to: San Diego, CA

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