By Ken Williams | Editor
New permanent exhibit at theNAT honors unsung heroes
In 1874, a small group of citizen scientists who shared a love of the natural world got together to create the San Diego Society of Natural History, the forerunner to the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.
These ordinary people — from lawyers to railroad workers — did something extraordinary for the citizens of San Diego, dedicating countless hours and personal resources to document their observations of the flora and fauna of this unique corner of California.
More than a century later, theNAT, as the museum has branded itself, is finally able to share their stories by showcasing artifacts, books, and plant and animal specimens that have been stored in the Research Library’s 56,000-volume collection, unseen by the public until now.
A permanent exhibit, “Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science,” premiered Saturday, Aug. 20 in the new Eleanor and Jerome Navarra Special Collections Gallery on the third floor of theNAT. The exhibit displays 70 rare books, works of art, and photographs from the Research Library.
The exhibit’s curator, Margi Dykens, on Aug. 19 gave San Diego Uptown News a personal tour of the two-story gallery, which includes a special area for children called the Dragon’s Den.
Dykens said the new gallery and the permanent exhibit is a labor of love by the museum’s staff, and that most of the work including building the exhibit infrastructure was done in-house.
Low-intensity lighting and controlled humidity levels between 45 percent and 50 percent are designed to protect the valuable historical books, one of which is 499 years old and was published 25 years after Christopher Columbus stepped foot in America.
“Many of these books I consider works of art,” Dykens said, pointing to an extremely rare copy of the gigantic Double Elephant Folio of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” published in 1860. The folio, one of only a few intact copies in existence, depicts life-size renditions of a wide variety of North America’s birds.
The book, which is about 50 inches tall, is currently open to the page featuring the Carolina Parrot, which was the only native parrot in the U.S. With its beautiful, colorful features, the parrot was ruthlessly hunted for its exquisite feathers for use in women’s hats. Sadly, the bird became extinct in 1918. The exhibit has a stuffed Carolina Parrot on display along with a historical photo of a woman wearing a fancy hat topped with numerous feathers from the parrot.
The 60-pound book was donated to theNAT in 1930.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to show it to the public,” Dykens said.
Audubon (1785-1851) was an ornithologist, naturalist and a painter who illustrated all the birds he encountered in the wild. As a result, he became one of the most celebrated wildlife illustrators of his generation.
The museum has digitally copied the pages of “Birds of America” and created an interactive version that allows visitors to flip through the book, view the illustrated birds and enlarge the images.
Also digitally copied and made into an interactive video is “The Botanical Illustrators of the Flora Londinensis,” a groundbreaking book from the late 18th century that documented all the plants growing within a 10-mile radius of London, England. Various artists, engravers, watercolorists and textile designers contributed to this gorgeous book, which was the first of its kind at the time.
Another multimedia gem is “Microscopes in Victorian England (1930s-1900),” which features a touch-screen selection of digitalized versions of slides from the era that allowed Victorians to look at specimens from the privacy of their own homes. Microscopes became commercially available and affordable during the Victorian era, so viewing specimen slides become a popular hobby for amateur naturalists and spurred greater interest in science and nature.
One of San Diego’s legendary citizen scientists, Laurence Klauber (1883-1968), is highlighted in the new exhibit. The chairman and CEO of SDG&E was an amateur naturalist whose hobby was studying reptiles. Self-taught, he nonetheless became one of the leading authorities on rattlesnakes. Klauber donated 36,000 reptile and amphibian specimens to theNAT, including the most comprehensive collection of rattlesnakes in the world. Check out the five jars containing rattlesnake specimens and the stuffed rattlesnake on view.
A short flight of steps leads up to a hallway gallery displaying 10 paintings by renowned artist A.R. Valentien, who from 1908 to 1918 documented 1,500 species of California wildflowers. The museum has 1,094 watercolor paintings from the decade-long project in its collection, and will be rotating them on a regular basis. Valentien’s patron saint was La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, who was one of the major benefactors of the museum from the 1920s until she died in 1932. A year later, the Scripps estate donated the Valentien paintings to theNAT. Again, these detailed watercolors have not been seen by the public, other than by request.
Down the hallway from the small art gallery is the Dragon’s Den, a fun space designed specifically for children. Some of theNat’s oldest books are currently on display in the Dragon’s Den, notably “Hortus Sanitatis” (“Garden of Health”), which was published in 1517 in Germany and details plants that heal.
“Some pages have handwritten notes on them,” Dykens said, pointing to a page on display.
True to the name of the space, several books are devoted to the mythical dragon.
“Dragons are still a cultural icon even today,” Dykens said.
One book on dragons, “The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and the Theater of Insects,” was written and illustrated by Edward Topsell in 1858. In those days, Dykens said, “people used to believe that dragons existed.” Eventually science would prove otherwise.
The Dragon’s Den also contains a fantasy book nook for children with three beanbag chairs “hidden” behind a wall of giant books, which also act as bookcases. In a whimsical touch, a giant cat sits atop the entrance.
And speaking of entrances. A griffin — another type of mythical beast — greets visitors at the unusual entry into the Eleanor and Jerome Navarra Special Collections Gallery, a hint of what is to come in the Dragon’s Den.
The 3,100-square-foot gallery has been carved out of the 7,300-square-foot Research Library, which was formerly considered part of the “back of the house” at the museum and out of view of the public other than by appointment. The gallery’s designers added skylights for natural lighting and exposed some of the architectural elements from the original 1930s building. In the middle of the third-floor gallery is the top of the Foucault pendulum, which was installed in the 1950s and has been restored and adorned with a modern casing.
The gallery exhibit is free for members and included with general admission tickets.
“Very few people have seen the objects that are featured in ‘Extraordinary Ideas’ and its accompanying galleries,” said Dykens, the longtime director of the Research Library. “The objects and rare books on display, some dating back to the 1500s, convey the impact citizen science has had not only on our organization, but the world at large. It’s a great honor to be able to share these items with the public for the first time.”
For more information, visit sdnhm.org.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.