Paul Wellman

Butterflies are ephemeral beings, their lovely little lives measured in just a few short months of dancing among nectared flowers. During the summers, since 2001, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has filled a temporary, green-netted space with kaleidoscopes of deep-brown and bright-orange specimens. The exhibit is one of the museum’s biggest draws, with young visitors awed and tickled by the experience of walking among hundreds of the gentle insects.

As part of its $20 million Centennial Project, the museum just finished construction of its new, permanent Sprague Butterfly Pavilion, a custom-built steel and sandstone structure filled with native plants, wooden benches, and a small pond. This year’s Butterflies Alive! exhibit ― which features red admirals, painted ladies, and mourning cloaks, all native to North America ― is now open from noon to 4:00 p.m. each day through October 14.

The grand reopening comes right after the museum completed major renovations to its Mammal and Bird Habitat halls, and just as the Mission Canyon campus reopens its popular outdoor area, where kids are permitted ― actually, encouraged ― to get down and dirty with nature. “The only rules we have are for the adults,” explained museum director Luke Swetland. “And that’s to let your kids go. If they want to climb a tree, fine. If they want to play in the mud, let them.”

Paul Wellman

The enhanced and expanded Museum Backyard, which Swetland referred to as “a halfway house to nature,” features the Bio Builders Zone, where kids can construct forts, art, or whatever else they dream up. The Create Zone is where mud pies are made, there’s a play stage for live shows, and a new waterway is meant to be explored when Mission Creek is running dry. Young guests can even check out a toolkit to help excavate real fossils trapped inside a piece of stone matrix. “It really teaches you how patient paleontologists have to be,” said Swetland.

In the Nature Club House, where the musuem’s collection of caged reptiles is displayed, an on-site naturalist is always around to answer questions. Just outside the front door is a perch partially hidden by manzanita branches that brings visitors up to the perspective of birds. In a nearby dead tree (close enough for viewing but far enough away to be safe) is a beehive from which a line of buzzing workers constantly comes and goes. New paths all around are wheelchair and stroller friendly. “We took everything that works about the museum and makes it special and brought it to the next level,” said Swetland.

All this was unveiled Friday, September 21, at a ribbon cutting attended by more than 100 trustees, staff, and local leaders. “I am so proud of the reception we have received from members and visitors regarding the improvements to the Mammal Hall and Bird Habitat Hall,” Swetland said to the crowd. “The beauty of the improved entrance areas sets the stage for the wonderful experience our visitors will enjoy, and the new Butterfly Pavilion and improved Backyard are the perfect next step in our revitalization of the museum campus.”

Within a couple of days, well over 3,500 guests filtered through the museum. Next year, Swetland said, the museum will start a complete restoration of the Fleischmann Auditorium. “We’re really excited and prepared to lean into the future,” he said.


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