State of the Museum

Natural History Museum Lands in the Black

Karl Hutterer
Paul Wellman

Karl Hutterer, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s executive director, told a tale about Maria to a large crowd of museum enthusiasts.

Maria came to the museum homeless, and it “became her elected home,” according to Hutterer, “a home where she discovered the glory of science.” Fast forward: She graduated high school with honors, with museum worker Monica attending the commencement as her surrogate parent. Now Maria is a proud recipient of the Gates Centennial Scholarship and studying at UCLA in biomedical-related fields.

Anecdotes like Maria’s, that show the personal, community-oriented accomplishments of the museum, were highlighted in a State of the Museum address last Wednesday, February 3.

Research and exhibits, according to Hutterer, are only a portion of the museum’s mission. One of its guiding principles is “inspiring an awe for nature and a thirst for discovery,” which it does largely with age-specific programs, cultivating an interest “at every age,” according to Hutterer. The Nature Adventures Program, for example, caters to children, with classes, camps, and workshops. And the biggest program is the “School and Teachers Services Program,” which last year involved a total of 19,500 schoolchildren. These children get free or reduced admission, according to Hutterer, because, “Nobody ought to be prevented from coming to the museum.”

The address started with the roots of the museum and analyzed its progress from that point. “The center of everything we do is nature,” Hutterer said. “All the programs are derivative of that.” A byproduct of this vision is that programs involve the nature around the museum, taking special advantage of nearby Mission Creek. Indeed, the museum focuses a lot of its resources on attempting to restore and spotlight local nature. This past year, they worked on eradicating Argentine ants and controlling invasive bivalves. This is “applied science” — a priority to the museum, Hutterer maintained.

The museum’s focus is not exclusively on the community, though. Hutterer emphasized the national role of the museum, with scientists “quite literally building our knowledge of nature.” Last year, museum scientists discovered and named two dozen new species — among them clams, snails, worms, and parasites. These species, of broader environmental importance, are grounded locally through their namesakes. “Sometimes they name new species after people in the community,” Hutterer said. “That way their names are immortalized in something that will endure.”

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has copious resources enabling such feats of discovery — like their collection of around 300 million specimens (bird eggs, shells, skeletons, Chumash artifacts, beetles, and so on). Also, prior to photography, nature was visually preserved in prints, and the museum sports a large collection of such historic artwork, said Hutterer. All of these resources enable the thorough research performed by the museum, Hutterer claims, and they are not confined to benefiting Santa Barbara alone. “This knowledge is shared with the world in a database,” said Hutterer, where specimens can be seen photographed and described, many with a map locating exactly where they were collected.

An interactive database on the birds of Santa Barbara is about to be launched. In a matter of weeks, photos and information will be easily accessed using the Web, according to Hutterer.

SBMNH's Blue Whale skeleton
Mary Crookston

And while the museum is very active in applied science, also worthy of attention is the quality of the exhibits. The blue whale skeleton in the front yard, which Hutterer calls the museum’s “icon,” is a good example. “Last year we raised $500,000 to curb deterioration of the skeleton,” Hutterer said. Considering that it is 73 feet long, this was no easy feat: The museum says blue whales are “considered to be the largest animal in the history of the planet,” and that theirs is “the most anatomically correct blue whale skeleton display in the world.”

Hutterer laid out the notable exhibits from last year, on topics ranging from coffee to a natural-world photo contest. And in an extensive description of the accomplishments of the museum in 2010, Hutterer talked numbers. Last year, the museum finished the year in the black. He hailed this as a “singular achievement,” and credited the success with preparation: “When the economy started turning down, we planned ahead. We cut positions and ended retirement benefits in order to weather the storm.”

Now with 50 full-time staff and a fluctuating number, somewhere around 46, of part-time staff, much of the museum’s support comes from its 950 volunteers. “Nothing shows how deeply the community is involved in our organization than that,” Hutterer gratefully insisted. “Nothing speaks louder.”

Despite what Hutterer considers a “stable base,” he is looking toward the future rather than simply glorying in present success. “We are aiming for a museum that honors our ancestors and serves our grandchildren,” he said. But this claim is more than words; Hutterer has a plan. A master construction plan to bolster or replace deteriorating facilities, promote sustainability, and enable emergency access — a limitation that caused the museum devotees to “sweat bullets” during the Jesusita Fire.

“There is a new Natural History Museum vision,” Hutterer declared, “and we want to be at the forefront of that vision.”


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