The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History was founded in 1916 by William Leon Dawson an Ornithologist when he became formally integrated into the Natural History Society that a group of businessmen and scientists had begun in 1876. The small museum that the society had started was located on State Street, however the location was moved to two buildings on Dawson’s property where his collection of bird eggs and bird specimens were prominently featured. Next read: Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara
In 1923, The Board of Directors were eager to expand their vision and received generous donations and endowments from the estates of two different members of the Hazard family, Caroline and Mrs. Rowland Hazard. A new museum building and campus were built and several wings added over time to grow the collection.
There are currently two campuses—Mission Canyon and The Sea Center which is located on the wharf in Santa Barbara. The museum receives over 200,000 visitors per year and now hold over 3.5 million specimens and artifacts in the departments of archaeology, anthropology, biology, geology, paleontology, art and archives.
The Natural History Museum is divided up into eight halls that represent different sciences. Admission to all eight halls is included in museum general admission. The specimens in the exhibit have been preserved in many ways including taxidermy. Each hall is set up much like a diorama filled with animals and created habitats displayed together in a scene.
Mammal Hall- Like the name suggests, mammals are featured in this hall. Visitors will learn about each animal on display from badgers to deer, foxes and even bears. Each exhibit will teach about the mammal’s physical characteristics like fur, antlers, teeth, camouflage, and other features that help it adapt to its environment.
Denis M. Power Bird Hall- This exhibit is one of the most renowned of its kind. There are 500 different birds representing 300 species in this hall. Each of the birds in this exhibit are native to the west coast and California.
Cartwright Hall- This exhibit is unique because it explored relationships between living things from plant and insect relationships to fire and climate. The habitats that are included in this exhibit are Salt Marsh, Yellow Pine Forest, Savanna, Oak Woodlands, Coastal Dunes and Chaparral. Most of the specimens are invertebrates and include terrestrial and freshwater species. The entrance to the hall is an amazing glass wall with over 4,000 butterflies, moths, and insects mounted to it. This exhibit also includes many live specimens such as spider, crustaceans, millipedes and scorpions.
Chumash Indian Hall- The history of the Chumash Indians is portrayed in this hall. These people were indigenous to the Santa Barbara area. The Natural History Museums holds one of the most impressive collections of Chumash artifacts in the world and partner with the local Chumash community to learn more.
Geology and Paleontology Hall- This is the largest of the permanent exhibits and includes specimens dating back 19,000 years ago. A highlight of the exhibit is the recreation of a Pygmy Mammoth skeleton that was most complete of any other that has been found. There are articulated mammoth skeleton and paintings of mammoths also in this exhibit. A genuine skeleton of the Channel Island Pygmy Mammoth is in the Pygmy Mammoth excavation exhibit. This specimen happens to the only full sized skeleton of a Channel Island Pygmy that has been found. This special exhibit also teaches visitors what the excavation process is all about.
Mineral and Gem Gallery- The Mineral and Gem Gallery is the newest exhibit at the museum. Minerals, gems, phosphorescent and fluorescent specimens, crystals and other precious stones are found in this exhibit. There are rare gems such as a watermelon tourmaline and ornamental stones. The touchable minerals in this exhibit are a visitor’s favorite. Visitors can play with fool’s gold, explore a crystal mine and watch glow in the dark rocks change under Ultraviolet lights.
John and Peggy Maximus Gallery- This hall focuses on the preservation of antique prints and interpreting works of art from the 17th through 19th centuries. The hall features three exhibitions every year that are organized around specific themes. The current exhibit is Birds of Prey, Game Birds, Nocturnal Hunters. This exhibit is part of the centennial celebration of the Natural History Museum and contains 91 Audubon prints that were donated by Mr. Wolcott Tuckerman in 1923. This collection was the foundation for the natural history print collection. The upcoming exhibition will be Design by Nature: Four centuries of Botanical Illustration. This exhibit will run in the spring of 2017.
Marine Hall- Local marine animals and their habitats are presented in this exhibit to help visitors understand more about the natural marine life all around them in California. A highlight of this exhibit is the model of a giant squid hanging from the ceiling.
The Blue Whale Skeleton showcases the largest animal to ever live on earth. Many natural history museums showcase dinosaurs, but the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has a blue whale marking the entrance of their museum. This is one of only five intact skeletons in the country and is 73 feet long and weight 7.7 thousand pounds. The skeleton underwent restoration in 2010 and some features were beyond repair so the massive skeleton is now a composite of four different Blue Whales.
Nature Trail is an outdoor natural walk through the timber and natural areas of the 11 acre property of the museum. There are paths that lead alongside the creek, trails through the nature sanctuary, plenty of picnic tables and an outdoor amphitheater. There are bird feeding stations and bird spotting guides that visitors can use while walking. Visitors are also educated on the value of natural plants such as poison oak. They can also observe the Steelhead Trout which is currently endangered.
The Museum Backyard celebrates the joy of being outside and features boulders to climb on, forts, mud stations, water activities, a stage and playground. The Nature Club House located in the Backyard as well and allows guests to interact with insects and other creatures found in the oakwoodland.
Fleischmann Auditorium is the lecture hall at the Museum of Natural History. There are also special exhibitions that are set up here. The current exit is American Indian Basketry from the Anthropology Collection. This exhibit in an ongoing series at the museum that goes behind the scenes. Items that are part of a collection but not currently on display to the public are featured in these special events.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History owns a second campus on Stearns Warf called The Sea Center. This museum is interactive and perfect for families with children who are interested in the ocean and marine life.
There are several permanent exhibitions at The Sea Center including a Shark Cove where visitors can interact with the sharks through a touch pool, see sharks while they are still forming inside translucent eggs. Intertidal Wonders is another exhibit of touch pools that allow guests to interact with sea anemones, hermit crabs, and more with naturalist guides. There are also Jelly Fish and a photography exhibit of underwater photographs and video.
This planetarium is the only on the Central Coast that features multimedia shows live. The planetarium opened in 1957 and has educated guests on the constellations, solar system, Milky Way galaxy, the moon and other planets as well. This building is part of the astronomy program through the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History with a recent remodel in 2005. There is now a state of the art digital projector that allows for guests to take flight virtually and brand new theater style seating.
There are shows that are produced daily that are in addition to museum admission unless visitors have a museum membership. In December, there are shows that discuss Santa’s fight, and there are shows that are in Spanish on Sundays. Twinkle Twinkle is for children who are under 5 and is a short, 15 minute program presented weekly. Kids’ Space Adventure is perfect for children over 5 who are interested in our solar system, asteroids, comets and stars. Your Cosmic Quest and What’s UP are both programs for teenagers and adults that focus on seasonal variations in the sky and recent discoveries. Cosmic Safari takes visitors on a tour of planets that have not been discovered yet. They learn about the different environmental possibilities on other planets and possible life forms. This is a mix of science fiction and best for families with children who are over five years old.
The mission of the museum has always been based in education. There are programs for Adults, Families, Teens and children, as well as, special programing for education field trips, teachers resource and homeschool programs offered through the museum.
There are also camps offered in the spring, summer and fall and weekend workshops that emerge participants in science and nature as they explore the world around them. There is even a program that employs high school students.
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2559 Puesta del Sol, Santa Barbara, CA 93105, Phone: 805-962-2526