The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Often overlooked but punching far above its weight is this small museum overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the hills above Santa Barbara.

Around 7 million visitors come to Santa Barbara each year but only about one hundred thousand make it to this place; one of the finest museums in the world. And just down the street is a native plant arboretum of equal stature.

When I was six I lived a few miles inland from the museum in Ojai (so long ago Eisenhower was president). I was wild for the rattlesnake exhibit where you could push a button and the stuffed snake would shake its rattle. This was pure magic and I would be there still—punching the button, if they hadn’t pulled me loose. Here’s news: the snake is still there and is still thrilling six-year-olds (and me too).

Oh sure, they have the snake but they also have a monumental blue whale skeleton featuring a jaw bone which is the biggest bone (2,000 lbs.) found in any animal alive or prehistoric (the record for a dinosaur is the sauropod’s femur at about 1,100 lbs).

The museum was founded in the 1880s with a bird egg collection which is still there. The stuffed birds stand vigilantly and very dead above their nests. Today folks think shooting and stuffing birds is a tragedy as many in the Audubon Society will constantly remind us. But It’s a fact that Audubon himself shot all birds he painted. Different times, right?

If you are into butterflies, they have one of the world’s great collections; and many are alive and living in an enclosure into which you can enter.

But to me the biggest thrill (next to the rattler, of course) is the model of the giant squid which winds above the exhibits of the exotic pigmy mammoth skeleton display. 50,000 years ago the Channel Islands were all connected because the Ice Age lowered the sea level by about 150 feet. As the sea level rose the 14 feet tall mammoths were trapped and over time evolved to be about 6 feet tall.

Walking the dog

It was surmised that the same thing happened to a subspecies of humans in Indonesia with the discovery of the three-foot-tall Flores Man which existed from about 1 million to 50,000 years ago.  

At Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island the oldest human remains in California were found in 1959. The skeleton was named Arlington Springs Man and dates to 13,000 years ago. In 1984 it was reevaluated and it was determined to be the bones of a woman so it was renamed Arlington Springs Woman. In 2006 the skeleton was re-reexamined and it was re-redetermined to be that of a man. Is it any wonder that we have so much gender elasticity in California?

Funny story: The Arlington Springs man/woman/man was on display in the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles a few years back a freshman high school girl inquired of the security guard how old the skeleton was. He told her it was 13,041 years old. The girl was interested in anthropology and knew a thing or two so she asked how they could be so exact about the age. The guard said, “Well, the skeleton was 13,000 years old when it got here and it has been in the museum for 41 years.” (stay in school, kids)

Where was I? Oh yes, back at the SB NatHisMus. There is a gem and mineral hall, a planetarium and an Indian display with dioramas of daily life and their gear. (Question: What’s the difference between and Indian and a Native American? Answer: Indians have casinos). At another location on Stearn’s Wharf the museum has an exhibition called Shark Cove, Intertidal Wonders and Jellies.

Back up on the hill in the museum’s backyard one comes face to tooth with full-sized dinosaur robots which move and thrill/scare the be-jesus out of little kids. They are crude by today’s standards but if you’re six-years-old and survived the rattlesnake attack you can probably handle the triceratops babies.

The museum is in a residential neighborhood (which is worth a wander too) and is truly one of the finest pocket museums in the world. 98.67%+- of those visiting Santa Barbara miss it. Don’t be one of them even if the rattler might get ya.

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  • R Berge says:

    The good stuff just keeps coming. I am heading down to SB. Thanks for the suggestion. Keep up the good work!

  • chris mckay says:

    Great article. I chased my kids around there but forgot I had been there. Speaking of forgetting…did you forget to add the answer to the meteorite question? I first guessed Greenland but changed it to Russia because it’s bigger.

  • mitch perkins says:

    Thanks for the tip…. I’ve missed it too many times

  • ollie says:

    so you are saying you got rattled by the snake when you were a boy
    As always thanx never even knew that was there

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