San Diego Natural History Museum

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The San Diego Natural History Museum is a museum located in Balboa Park in San Diego, California. It was founded in 1874 as the San Diego Society of Natural History. It is the second oldest scientific institution west of the Mississippi and the oldest in Southern California. The present location of the museum was dedicated on January 14, 1933. A major addition to the museum was dedicated in April 2001, doubling exhibit space.

Coordinates: 32°43′55.6″N 117°8′50.29″W / 32.732111°N 117.1473028°W

San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diego Natural History Museum exterior
San Diego Natural History Museum is located in San Diego
San Diego Natural History Museum
Location within San Diego
Established 1874[1]
Location 1788 El Prado, Balboa Park
San Diego, CA 92101
United States
Type Natural history museum
Public transit access Buses: MTS Local#7, MTS Rapid#215, Trolley: City College Stop, transfer to #7


Allosaur (1768858002)
Allosaurus at the San Diego Natural History Museum

The San Diego Natural History Museum grew out of the San Diego Society of Natural History, which was founded on October 9, 1874.[2][3] The Natural History Society was founded by George W. Barnes, Daniel Cleveland, Charles Coleman, E. W. Hendrick and O. N. Sanford.[2] It is the oldest scientific institution in southern California,[4] and the second oldest west of the Mississippi.[5]

In its initial years, the San Diego Society of Natural History was the region's primary source of scientific culture, serving a small but growing community eager for information about its natural resources. Early society members established a Volunteer County Weather Service in 1875,[6] petitioned to create Torrey Pines State Reserve in 1885[2] and Anza Borrego Desert State Park,[7] and garnered support for the San Diego Zoological Society.[8]

Hotel Cecil, Sixth Avenue

In 1887, the Society was given a lot on Sixth Avenue between B and C streets by E. W. Morse, a former president of the city's short-lived Lyceum of Natural Sciences. The Hotel Cecil was eventually built on part of the society's lot, and in June 1912 the Society began to meet there.[2]

In 1910, the San Diego Society of Natural History hired Kate Stephens, an authority on terrestrial and marine mollusks, as curator for its collections.[9] These included the personal collection of her husband, mammalogist and ornithologist Frank Stephens, who donated over 2000 bird and mammal specimens to the Society in 1910.[10] In June 1912, Katherine and Frank Stephens installed the Society's first museum exhibits at the Hotel Cecil, where they could be viewed by the public on selected afternoons.[1][11]

The Sixth Avenue property hosted the museum's exhibits for a very short time, roughly 1912-1917. However, it remained the property of the Society until 1987, when it was sold to the Trammel Crow Company. Money raised by the sale became part of the Museum of Natural History’s endowment fund.[2]

Exposition Buildings, Balboa Park

Nevada State Building, Balboa Park
Foreign and Domestic Arts Building, Balboa Park
Commerce & Industries Building, Balboa Park

Various supporters of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition at Balboa Park expressed interest in repurposing buildings from the Exposition. This was complicated because the actual title to the land in Balboa Park remained with the City of San Diego.[2] In June 1916, museum supporter G. S. Thompson proposed that "The one legal ground that a private museum corporation has that will permit it to occupy city-owned buildings in a public park is that the museum authorities maintain exhibits that will be free, i.e., without admission charges, and open at all times to the public."[12]

The museum eventually occupied three different buildings from the Exposition in Balboa Park, none of which was ideally suited to museum use. In 1917, the Society paid $500 to the Panama-California Exposition Corporation for the vacant Nevada State Building. The Society moved its growing collections and library into the building in February 1917, thus creating the San Diego Natural History Museum.[2] Frank Stephens served as the first director of the museum from 1917 to 1920.[13][14] The Board identified its mission as being "to educate and help people know and love nature".[1] Using specimens from the museum's collections, the institution developed educational outreach programs with city and county schools.[1]

Unfortunately, many of the buildings at the Exposition had been intended as temporary structures. The two-story Nevada building, with its arcades, flanking wings, and Spanish-Renaissance trim, was not built to last. The museum obtained permission from the Park Commission to move to the 1915 Foreign Arts Building, which it remodeled in 1920. When the Foreign Arts Building proved too small, the museum expanded into the 1916 Canadian Building (previously the 1915 Commerce and Industries Building). This new space was opened to the public on December 9, 1922. The museum's intention was to eventually combine the buildings.[2]

William Templeton Johnson Building, Balboa Park

From 1922 until his death in 1946, Clinton G. Abbott was the museum's director. During Abbott's period as director, the museum was able to build and move into long-term quarters.[15] Other notable naturalists and curators of this period include Guy Fleming,[16] Laurence M. Huey,[17][18] and Laurence M. Klauber.[19]

In 1925, a nearby fire raised concerns about the safety of the existing museum buildings. Community leaders recognized the need for a permanent museum of adequate size that would be both fire-proof and earthquake-proof.[2] Ellen Browning Scripps was a major benefactor of the proposed building project.[20][21]

In 1832, San Diego's leading architect, William Templeton Johnson, was commissioned by the Society of Natural History to design its new museum building on Balboa Park's East Prado. Johnson had earned his reputation with his design of the Fine Arts Gallery (now the San Diego Museum of Art) and the downtown San Diego Trust & Savings Bank, among other buildings. The museum building combined Spanish and Moorish touches. Yellow and blue tiles mark a row of arches under a balustrade; surprisingly, given the Spanish influences, the building did not have a tiled roof.[22]

The construction of the permanent headquarters was made possible through a grant of $125,000 from Ellen Browning Scripps, and by public subscription. However, the full amount needed for the building could not be raised in the Depression years. Only the first unit of the building, at the south end of the lot, and one wing extending toward the north, could be built. The north and east exterior facades were left plain as temporary walls slated for future expansion, and remained so for 60 years. The $175,000 Natural History Museum building was formally dedicated on January 14, 1933.[1][23]

World War II

The Society was notified on March 8, 1943, that the United States Navy wished to take over the Natural History Museum[2] for hospital use at once, becoming the infectious diseases ward. Some renovation took place in the facility, including the addition of an elevator designed to handle hospital gurneys and a nurses' station between floors. Both features remain in use today. The U.S. Navy takeover of the museum building for the duration of World War II resulted in damage to the collections, exhibits, and the building itself.[20] The main library and its librarian were moved to San Diego State College; the rest of the treasured and fragile exhibits were hastily packed, crated and moved into a total of 32 separate places. Exhibits too large to be moved were stuffed into the north wing on the main floor. Director Clinton G. Abbott and a staff of four were allowed only limited access to an area of the basement.[2]

Once staff were allowed to reoccupy the building, on July 1, 1949, major renovations commenced.[2] Forced to look at all collections and exhibits by this rehabilitation process, the board adopted a firm policy to restrict collections to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. The museum continued its steady growth with post-war San Diego, despite periods of financial stress. The American Alliance of Museums accredited the museum in 1974.[20][24]

San Diego Natural History Museum, Balboa Park
Expanded museum with Postmodern style facade.

Postmodern Expansion, 2001

Interior atrium, with view down to lobby.

In 1991, Michael Hager took over the position of President and CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum.[25][26] With Robert F. Smith,[27][28] he led the museum through a strategic planning process that focused the museum's collection strategies on southern and Baja California, and led to the development of the Biodiversity Research Center of Southern California, a collaborative Environmental Science Education Center for the United States and Mexico, and a major capital campaign for the expansion of the museum itself.[25][26]

In April 2001, new design and construction more than doubled the size of the 1933 building, from 65,000 square feet (6,000 m2) of usable space to approximately 150,000 square feet (14,000 m2). The entrance received a new Postmodern style facade and glassed atrium. The project architects were Richard Bundy and David Thompson Architects Inc.[29] The expansion also provided new space for the museum's research, educational, and administrative activities.[30]

LEED Certification

In December 2009, the San Diego Natural History Museum was awarded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design−LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (LEED-EB: O&M) Certification.[31] It is one of the oldest privately owned institutions to achieve the award.[32]

Exhibitions and programs

Finback Whale Skull San Diego Natural History Museum DSCF1854
Finback Whale skull

With the addition of the new wing to the museum, areas for permanent exhibitions were created, along with five new exhibition halls. Also added was the state-of-the-art Charmaine and Maurice Kaplan Theater with a 56' screen and a Dolby Digital 3D projector.[33]

The new display installations eliminated the formerly popular Old Mine mineralogy gallery, that had displayed mineral specimens, gemstones, and fluorescent rocks and minerals.[34]

Permanent exhibitions

Vulpes macrotis San Diego Natural History Museum DSCF1847
Kit fox habitat in Coast to Cactus installation
Romeyn Beck Hough American Woods sample book DSCF1740
Romeyn Beck Hough, books of American Woods from the Extraordinary Ideas installation

Fossil Mysteries is a highly interactive exhibition tracing the 75-million-year fossil-rich prehistory of southern California and Baja California, Mexico. With a large display of fossils, dioramas, murals, models, and interactives, the exhibition chronicles evolution, extinction, ecology, and Earth processes from the age of the dinosaurs to the Ice Ages.[35]

The 2015 installation of Coast to Cactus in Southern California highlights the region's biodiversity.[36] The permanent exhibition was honored by the American Alliance of Museums' "Overall Excellence for an Exhibition" recognition in June, 2016.[37]

In August, 2016, the museum opened a new permanent exhibition, Extraordinary Ideas From Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science, in a newly renovated space in the Research Library, the Eleanor and Jerome Navarra Special Collections Gallery.[38][39]

Other notable exhibitions

In 2003, the Museum presented a major showing of paintings from its collection in the exhibition Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien. The exhibition, created in collaboration with the Irvine Museum, displayed 80 of the museum's 1092 watercolors of California plants painted in the early 1900s by Albert R. Valentien. Winner of the 2004 Western Museums Association Excellence in Exhibition Award, the Valentien show toured museums in the United States through 2009.[40]

In 2007—2008 a collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls were on display, ten of them being shown for the first time in public.[41] The show's attendance was close to 400,000 visitors, a record for any exhibit at the museum.[42]


In 2002 the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias was established, to refocus research and collections on regional biology, biodiversity, and geology.[43]

The San Diego Zooarchaeology Laboratory identifies faunal assemblages from archaeological sites in San Diego County, the western United States, and the ancient Near East, referencing the San Diego Natural History Museum’s scientific collections. Founded in 2010, the SDZL collections include over 46,000 bird specimens and 22,650 mammals. With 7,000 complete bird skeletons, and over 1,400 partial skeletons, the collections contain 90% of bird families worldwide, represented by 1,605 species. Over 1,000 complete mammal skeletons and 20,000 skulls are currently housed, and the collections continue to grow. In-house scholars provide expertise in the specialities of paleontology, marine invertebrates, entomology, herpetology, and botany. Providing interpretation and perspective on the use of animals in antiquity, the SDZL collects and documents zooarchaeological information (specimens and literature) for use by the scientific community, fosters cooperative research, and communicates with the public about zooarchaeological research in the region. In addition, the SDZL provides training to students and volunteers in zooarchaeological techniques and methods.[44]

The Museum and its research unit, the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias (BRCC), conduct biological expeditions and field research on the Baja California peninsula, bringing together scientists from various disciplines and fostering collaboration between participating institutions in the United States and Mexico. The expeditions also support the enhancement of the institutions' scientific collections, conservation efforts, management of natural resources, and environmental education. Representative expeditions include the 2013-2016 Sierra Cacachilas biodiversity study (which resulted in the discovery of a new species of spider, Califorctenus cacachilensis),[45] a status survey of the flora and fauna of Isla Guadalupe (2000), the Agua Verde and Punta Mechudo (2003) expedition (a binational, multidisciplinary expedition explored the southern end of the Sierra de La Giganta), and the 1997 study of the Sierra San Francisco and the Sierra Guadalupe, located in northern Baja California Sur on the eastern edge of the Vizcaíno Desert.[46]


The Museum's refereed scientific publications date back to 1905, reflecting the long history of the San Diego Society of Natural History as a leader in research of the geologic past and present biodiversity of western North America and beyond. The journal Transactions of San Diego Society of Natural History preceded the currently published Proceedings of the San Diego Society of Natural History as the Museum's major scientific publication. In-depth volumes of Memoirs have treated topics comprehensively, while shorter works, often written for a more general non-technical audience, have been published as Occasional Papers. In addition, the Museum has published the magazines Environment Southwest and Field Notes.[47] The Museum maintains online atlas projects including the binational Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California and the Plant Atlas of San Diego County and publishes the Bird Atlas of San Diego County. A Mammal Atlas of San Diego County is forthcoming.[48]


  1. ^ a b c d e "History". San Diego Natural History Museum. Retrieved 7 October 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Amero, Richard W. "Chapter 17 History of the San Diego Natural History Museum" (PDF). Balboa Park History. Retrieved 7 October 2016.
  3. ^ Mellin, Maribeth (2009). Insiders' Guide® to San Diego. [S.l.]: Gpp Travel. pp. 162–163. ISBN 9780762748709. Retrieved 7 October 2016.
  4. ^ Dk eyewitness travel guide california. [S.l.]: Dk Publishing. 2014. pp. 262–263. ISBN 978-1465412126.
  5. ^ United States Congress House Committee on Education and Labor. Select Subcommittee on Education (1974). Museum Services Act: Hearings Before the Select Subcommittee on Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, Ninety-third Congress, Second Session on H.R. 332 ... Hearings Held in Los Angeles, Calif., May 17 and 18, 1974; San Francisco, Calif., May 20, 1974; and Boston, Mass., June 14 and 15, 1974. U.S. Government Printing Office. I would like to say that the San Diego Natural History Society, which is the corporate name of the San Diego Natural History Museum, is the oldest scientific institution in the Southwest and the second oldest west of the Mississippi;
  6. ^ "San Diego Society of Natural History". Environment Southwest (496-515): 40. 1982.
  7. ^ Lindsay, Diana (1973). "History in the California Desert". The Journal of San Diego History. 19 (4). Retrieved 8 October 2016.
  8. ^ Klauber, Laurence M. (2005). "Two Days In San Francisco—1906" (PDF). The Journal of San Diego History. 51 (1&2): 3, 15. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
  9. ^ "Stephens, Katherine (c. 1853-1954)". San Diego Natural History Museum. Retrieved 10 October 2016.
  10. ^ Huey, Laurence M. (May 1938). "Frank Stephens, Pioneer" (PDF). The Condor. XL (3): 101–110. doi:10.2307/1363824. Retrieved 10 October 2016.
  11. ^ "Katherine "Kate" Stephens 1853-1954". San Diego Magazine: 218. 1 July 2006. Retrieved 10 October 2016.
  12. ^ San Diego Union, June 20, 1916, II, 2.
  13. ^ Shaw, Marjorie Betts (Summer 1978). "The San Diego Zoological Garden: A Foundation to Build On". The Journal of San Diego History. 24 (3). Retrieved 10 October 2016.
  14. ^ Roberts, T. S. (April 1938). "Obituaries ... Frank Stephens". The Auk. 55 (2): 313–315. doi:10.2307/4078247. JSTOR 4078247.
  15. ^ "San Diego Natural History Museum Collection 1974.019". OAC Online Archives of California. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  16. ^ Nichol, Hank (1994). "Guy Fleming From Notes from the Naturalist". Torrey Pines State Reserve.
  17. ^ "Laurence Huey (1892-1963)". San Diego Natural History Museum. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  18. ^ "Photographs of Laurence M. Huey". Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  19. ^ "Klauber, Laurence (1883-1968)". San Diego Natural History Museum. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  20. ^ a b c Engstrand, Iris; Bullard, Anne (1999). Inspired by nature : the San Diego Natural History Museum after 125 years. San Diego, Calif.: San Diego Natural History Museum. ISBN 0918969042.
  21. ^ "Scripps, Ellen (1836-1932)". San Diego Natural History Museum. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  22. ^ Schaffer, Sarah J. (1999). "A Civic Architect for San Diego The Work of William Templeton Johnson" (PDF). The Journal of San Diego History. 45 (3). Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  23. ^ Chute, James (2016). "Balboa Park 100 Memories". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  24. ^ "Natural History Museum". San Diego Sightseeing Tours. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  25. ^ a b Schimitschek, Martina (February 25, 2016). "SD Natural History Museum president a rare specimen". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  26. ^ a b "2010 Annual Report 2011". San Diego Natural History Museum. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  27. ^ Williams, Jack (August 25, 2006). "Robert F. Smith Jr., 82, remembered as great leader, humanitarian". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  28. ^ "Robert F. Smith, Jr., Cultural Arts Leadership Symposium" (PDF). Balboa Park Cultural Parternship. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  29. ^ "David C. Thompson hired as senior architect". San Diego Source. June 28, 2013. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  30. ^ "San Diego Natural History Museum" (PDF). Bender & Dean Engineering. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  31. ^ "Museum LEED Certification" (2009)
  32. ^ "The Oldest LEED-EB: O&M-certified Museum in the Nation"
  33. ^ "Giant-Screen Theater - Charmaine and Maurice Kaplan Theater". theNat. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  34. ^ "Mineralogy". theNat. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  35. ^ "Fossil Mysteries". theNat. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
  36. ^ "Coast to Cactus in Southern California". theNat. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  37. ^ Myrland, Susan (June 20, 2016). "Natural History Museum wins 4 awards". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  38. ^ "Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science". theNat. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  39. ^ Kroth, Maya (August 25, 2016). "Due respect for 'Citizen Science'". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  40. ^ "Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien". theNat. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  41. ^ Kohn, Risa Levitt. "Dead Sea Scrolls". theNat. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  42. ^ LeFee, Scott (January 7, 2008). "Nearly 400,000 people view Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  43. ^ "Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias". theNat. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  44. ^ "San Diego Zooarchaeology Laboratory". theNat. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
  45. ^ Brennan, Deborah Sullivan (4 April 2017). "Saucer-sized spider discovered in Baja cave". San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 7 April 2017.
  46. ^ "Binational Expeditions". theNat. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
  47. ^ "Publications". theNat. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
  48. ^ "Atlas Projects". theNat. Retrieved 9 October 2016.

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