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How We Made the Old, New Again

Following years of planning and ten months of restoration and transformation, this month the Museum reopened our beloved Mammal Hall, Bird Habitat Hall, and Dennis Power Bird Hall, all thanks to our successful $20 million Centennial Campaign.

Cartwright Hall reopened as the new Santa Barbara Gallery, which focuses on how geography and climate come together to create the unique ecosystems and broad biodiversity of the Santa Barbara region.

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is, Did you keep the old dioramas? I am happy to say yes—and not only yes, but we went even further—we made the ‘old’ ‘new.’ Each diorama was fully restored by a team of experts and now better showcases our historic specimens. In addition to the care given to each specimen, we added additional foliage, new lighting, new interpretation, and fun, touchable interactive elements. We also added new dioramas into the hall that squarely engage visitors in a conversation about the closeness of nature and our place in it.

Designers, diorama experts, taxidermists, fabricators, painters, and sculptors all lent their artistry to the cause, and, as a result, the new incarnations of these exhibits still honor their heritage while better serving future visitors. Team members included the Museum’s Exhibit Master Plan team facilitated by Director of Exhibits Frank Hein, Senior Exhibits Manager Debra Darlington, and  Exhibits Coordinator Francisco Lopez, as well as our outside team members Gallagher and Associates,  Cinnabar Design Build, Prey Taxidermy, and Dixon Studios. The team was rounded out with curators Krista Faye, Matt Gimmel and Paul Valentich-Scott, Librarian Terri Sheridan, educator Justin Canty, and master birder Rebecca Coulter.  We accessed the tremendous memories of present and past Museum staff and docents in our research, including Joan Lentz, Larry Freisen, Dennis Power, and Karl Hutterer.

Hein said, “When we began this project, people would say things like ‘Don’t touch the Mammal Hall,’ and we really respected that sentiment even though we knew it needed attention and updating. So we decided to take the gallery back to its original state, just as the architect designed the space. And we chose to retain as many and as much of the original dioramas as we could by cleaning them, removing extraneous additions, and bringing them back to their original look. In some cases, we removed layers of interpretation. For example, in the Mammal Hall the beautiful curved cases were ‘squared off’ at some point; we removed the added wood to reveal the lovely curved arches on the top of the dioramas. We also found an abandoned coffee cup, a hammer left behind, and a 1929 newspaper!


Luke and Allis Markham, of Prey Taxidermy,
discuss a specimen in Mammal Hall


Luke with Museum Friend Joan Kurze


The planning actually started four years ago when we did a lot of interviewing of and group meetings with the board, staff, docents, teachers, visitors, and the public in order to see what their vision was for the Museum. We conducted a design charrette over a period of months in order to create a common vision for the new galleries and Museum upgrades; this was memorialized in the Manifesto which guided us during the renovation. I feel good. There were so many moving parts and details to be decided. And we met our deadline to re-open! The feedback from the public has been very positive, said Hein.

One of my favorite quotes as we were working through the process was Details aren't details. They're design. We did our best to give every detail our full attention. Visitors may or may not know exactly why things feel ‘great,’ but I think it's a combination of good ideas and attention to execution and detail. From acoustic treatments, to flooring, paint color choices, an upgraded lighting system, just the right touch of high quality videos, new interpretation, new and updated taxidermy, and even clean windows—it all adds up to creating something that's more than the sum of its parts."

The Museum's second Grand Reopening will occur in August when the redesigned Backyard and Club House reopen. The signature piece of the Centennial Project will be the Museum's new Pavilion that will be home to butterflies every summer and available for many other uses during the rest of the year.

Everything we have done in the Centennial Project is meant to revitalize the Museum, to honor the past and make it new. I hope you will visit the Museum soon to see what your support has made possible. Thank you ALL for making this fantastic project a reality.


Luke J. Swetland
President & CEO
Upcoming Events
New Exhibit: The Art of Natural History–Rare Treasures from our Antique Print Collection
Friday, June 22 through Monday, September 3
at the Museum’s Maximus Gallery
Free with Paid Admission
See how artists and scientists viewed the natural world from 1600-1900 in this summer exhibit highlighting historic prints from the Museum’s art collection.

The purpose of natural history art is to aid the scientist in their work to identify, describe, classify, and name species. Images were crucial to understanding the natural world, and naturalists depicted what they saw in nature. What began as a fundamental aid to scientific inquiry became works of art in themselves and often of incomparable craftsmanship and beauty.
Science Pub: Soft Robotics–Bringing Principles Found in Nature to Engineered Systems
Monday, July 9 from 6:30-8:00 PM
at Dargan’s Irish Pub & Restaurant, 18 E. Ortega Street
Free Admission
Join our fun and friendly conversation, and quench your thirst for knowledge about science and nature. Be sure to get to Dargan’s early for a seat and your favorite food and drink.

Dr. Elliot W. Hawkes, UCSB Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, will show and tell how the design principles of nature can be leveraged to advance state-of-the-art engineering. He will discuss efforts to learn from nature by incorporating compliance, or softness, into robots to create new functionality.
Mission Creek Legacy Society Announces Annual Dinner Date
Monday, September 17
in the Museum Courtyard
5:30 PM
The Mission Creek Legacy Society Annual Dinner recognizes donors who have remembered the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in their will, trust, or estate plan. Leaving a legacy ensures that the Museum will stay strong for many years to come. Join 70 other members at this fun and friendly reception and dinner. If you have made such a commitment to the Museum, please let us know so we can include you at this celebration. Contact Rochelle Rose CFRE at or phone (805) 682-4711 ext. 179.

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