Museum of Comparative Oology
The earliest roots of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History extend back to 1876 when a group of professional scientists and amateurs founded the Santa Barbara Natural History Society with a small museum at 1226 State Street. This pioneer effort waned around the turn of the century but was reinforced in 1916 with the arrival of noted ornithologist William Leon Dawson from Ohio. Together with a group of prominent Santa Barbarans, Dawson founded the Museum of Comparative Oology, at first located in two outbuildings on his property on Puesta del Sol in Mission Canyon and based on his own extensive collection of bird eggs as well as collections of several members of the community. Dawson and his friends believed that 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.”
The Board of Directors soon broadened their vision and expanded the museum to interpret other aspects of natural history. Even though located in a small community on the West Coast, the museum attracted supporters of great vision and generosity as well as directors and staff of great ability and national standing. Among the former was the Hazard family, particularly Dr. Caroline Hazard, President of Wellesley College, who donated a portion of her estate in Mission Canyon for a new museum building and campus. The new building, built with funds donated by Mrs. Rowland G. Hazard in memory of her late husband, opened in 1923 and was soon expanded with several wings funded by other generous supporters from the community. Foremost among these generous patrons was Maj. Max Fleischmann, heir to the Fleischmann Yeast fortune.
Among leaders in the early development of the museum were Dawson’s successor as Director, Ralph Hoffmann, a Harvard-trained educator, botanist, and ornithologist. He was succeeded by Paul Marshall Rhea who, at various times, 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 DC. Arthur Sterry Coggeshall had worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and had made a name for himself in dinosaur research and interpretation. He was Director of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, IL, before coming to Santa Barbara in 1937 and convinced Max Fleischmann to build Fleischmann Auditorium as a condition of his employment. Coggeshall was instrumental in founding the California Association of Museums and the Western Museum Association.
A history of nature and art
Trained at the Denver Museum of Natural History, Egmont Rett joined the Museum in 1923. He was a taxidermist and diorama artist of legendary skills who introduced many innovations in the preparation of live mounts and the production of models that had national impact. In the 1930s and 1960s, famous artists of the California school of plein-aire painters produced backgrounds for dioramas that earned the museum great reputation.
Anthropology and paleontology
David Banks Rogers came to the Museum in 1923 to head its new Department of Anthropology and initiated the Museum’s leadership role in archaeological, ethnographic, and linguistic research on the Chumash Indian tradition. He collaborated in these efforts for many years with the famous Smithsonian anthropologist John Peabody Harrington. Rogers’ work was continued by Phil C. Orr, who distinguished himself through his research on the pygmy mammoth remains unique to the Channel Islands and through the discovery of the remains of “Arlington Springs Woman” on Santa Rosa Island, which he judged to be extremely ancient. “Arlington Springs Woman” has recently been determined to be 13,000 years old, the oldest human remains found so far in North America.
In the field of zoology, the Museum has distinguished itself particularly in the area of marine biology. In invertebrate marine biology, F.G. Hochberg, a noted authority on squid and octopus, has built and led a research team of international reputation since the 1970s. In vertebrate marine biology, Charles D. Woodhouse, Jr., created an important program of research, education, and conservation regarding marine mammals and was a founder of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Strengths in research and public education
Throughout the years, the Museum has grown steadily in all programs, establishing major collections in anthropology, earth sciences, and zoology, producing major scientific works and offering educational programs to school children and adults. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Museum played a leadership role in the emerging field of environmental action when Museum scientists helped establish the whale stranding network and participated in the California Condor Project. The Museum has maintained a careful balance between regional focus and global perspective. Significant new physical additions built in recent decades to accommodate new programs include the Gladwin Planetarium (1957), the Sea Center (1987), a state-of-the-art collections and research facility (1991), and the John & Peggy Maximus Gallery (1995). The latter gives the Museum the unique distinction of integrating art in the interpretation of nature.