Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, CA | CruiseBe
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Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

2559 Puesta del SolSanta Barbara, CA
History and museums
museum, landmark, sightseeing

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is the oldest museum in Santa Barbara, California, founded in 1916. The museum is located in Mission Canyon, immediately behind the Santa Barbara Mission. Set in a traditional southern California environment, the museum campus occupies 12 acres (4.9 ha) of oak woodland along Mission Creek. It is housed in a mission-style, Spanish Mediterranean complex of buildings. The museum has 5,700 members and more than 150,000 people visit the Museum each year.



The early roots of the Museum date back to the 1880s, when a group of professional and amateur scientists, including Charlotte Bingham (Botanist), started the Santa Barbara Natural History Society and an accompanying museum at 1226 State Street. Though the effort waned at the end of the century, the arrival of ornithologist William Leon Dawson from Ohio re-ignited the effort. Dawson and a group of prominent Santa Barbarans founded the Museum of Comparative Oology, which was first located in two outbuildings on his property on Puesta del Sol in Mission Canyon. The initial holdings were assembled from his own extensive collection of bird eggs as well as collections of other community members. According to the Museum's website, Dawson believed oology—the study of bird eggs—“would throw a flood of light upon the trend of life itself,” yielding “the secrets of life’s origins and its destiny.”

Though it began from a collection of bird eggs, the holdings of the Museum were soon expanded into other realms by its Board of Directors. The successor to William Dawson as director was Ralph Hoffmann, a Harvard-trained educator, botanist, and ornithologist. The next director Paul Marshall Rhea who had been President of the American Association of Museums, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and Director of the Carnegie Foundation in Washington, D.C.. Some of the notable benefactors of the Museum included Dr. Caroline Hazard who was President of Wellesley College at the time: she donated part of her estate in Mission Canyon for a new museum building. This building was built with funds donated by Mrs. Rowland G. Hazard in memory of her late husband and opened in 1923. The architect was Carleton Winslow.

In 1937, Arthur Sterry Coggeshall came to Santa Barbara, and took the position of director of the museum. He had also worked at various prestigious museums, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Upon coming, he convinced Max Fleischmann, heir to the Fleischmann Yeast fortune, to build Fleischmann Auditorium as a condition of his employment. Coggeshall was later a key player in the foundation of the California Association of Museums and the Western Museum Association.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the museum had a large role in the field of environmental action. Museum scientists helped establish the whale stranding network and participated in the California Condor Project.

Albert Einstein, who was visiting the museum with his wife, in 1931, remarked "I can see that this museum has been built by the work of love."


The museum is renowned for fine dioramas of birds, mammals, and southern California habitats. These were illustrated in the 1930s and 1960s by famous artists of the California school of plein-aire painters. The museum is also known for its halls of marine life, geology, and Chumash Indian life, as well as an art gallery dedicated to antique natural history prints. It has collections of over 3 million specimens and an active research program with a focus on marine biology, terrestrial vertebrates, insects, anthropology, geological mapping, and natural history art.

Exhibits include "Butterflies Alive" and “Bringing the Condors Home” telling the story of the decline and beginning of recovery of the California condor. The museum’s Gladwin Planetarium was renovated in early 2005 and equipped with technology to display distant planets, stars, and galaxies. The museum will launch a $30 million remodel in fall 2016, starting with the butterfly pavilion. During the renovation the museum will stay open and the square footage will remain unchanged.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, formerly known as the "Ty Warner Sea Center", is an off-site facility owned and operated by the Museum of Natural History and is located on Santa Barbara’s historic Stearns Wharf. It opened in April 2005. Among the exhibits of the Sea Center are a Tide Pool with waves rushing into it every 60 seconds, the Wet Deck featuring direct access to the water below, the Channel Theater, the Workshop, the Whale Karaoke station, and the plastinated dolphin.

The museum has one of the largest extant collections of historical Native American basketry by Chumash basket weaver artists.

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