In January 1916, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History started as the Museum of Comparative Oology (an area of ornithology – the study of birds – that focuses on the eggs and nests of birds) under the direction of William Leon Dawson. With a collection of more than 5,000 eggs from 525 species of birds, Mr. Dawson and a group of 15 supporters established this institution dedicated to the accumulation, study and display of this world-class egg and nest collection. Initially, public viewings of the collection were by appointment only, but the Museum’s Board of Visitors, scientists elected by the Board of Trustees to serve in a moral and social capacity, were invited to stop by anytime. They were treated to tea and entertained by lectures prepared by Dawson himself. The Museum quickly built a reputation for both hospitality and scientific discipline.
Eventually the vision for the institution began to shift. The Board decided to broaden the scope of the Museum to include other disciplines of natural history. Dawson wished to keep the Museum focused on eggs or at the most, ornithology. In 1923, the Museum and Dawson parted ways, and the Museum diversified to include anthropology, botany, and invertebrate and vertebrate zoology.
Today, the Museum’s collections encompass more than three million objects housed both in our exhibits and within the Collections and Research Division. That being said, the Museum has not forgotten its beginnings…an egg. In fact, the Museum’s bird egg collection is the tenth largest in the nation with more than 11,000 egg sets from 1,300 species.
The Museum’s collections are available to scientists worldwide; and the Museum is increasing access to its collections via the Internet with its online database at www.sbcollections.org. The online database allows visitors to search the Museum's collection database by type of organism, date, or location thereby facilitating collaborative research worldwide. No one can predict what secrets nature will unveil over the next century; but one thing is certain...the collections of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History will play a pivotal role.