Find out at Santa Barbara Museum of History’s new exhibit in Maximus Gallery
Don’t be fooled by the cheeky title of the new exhibit in the Maximus Gallery at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
“What’s in Our Drawers” belies its substance, which reveals what’s hidden in the museum’s Collections and Research Center, not only the kinds of objects preserved there but the people who care for them.
“I hope that visitors take away more of a personal connection with the museum when they see all these people behind the scenes,” said Linda Miller, gallery curator.
She and Marian McKenzie, Maximus exhibit designer, coordinated with 14 current and emeritus staff to display a wide variety of specimens and artifacts based on the scientists’ own personal criteria.
“I’ve never done a show featuring curatorial staff on such a personal level. I’ve enjoyed collaborating with them,” said Ms. Miller, who normally selects items and writes exhibit text alone, using antique prints to highlight the parallel development of the sciences and science illustration.
She developed the exhibit concept before the pandemic but had to shelve it due to the degree of in-person cooperation. Two years later, the unique show has come to fruition.
Each exhibit case contains items chosen by an expert, from marine snail shells studied by Dr. Henry W. Chaney, Howard/Berry Chair of Malacology, to bird study skins preserved by Dr. Krista Fahy, curator of Vertebrate Zoology.
Some objects have a multilayered history, like the artifacts selected by Dr. John R. Johnson, curator of anthropology, which came to the Department of Anthropology during his 35 years on staff.
Some favorites — like the prehistoric mammal teeth chosen by Dr. Jonathan Hoffman, Dibblee Curator of Earth Science — are obscure, while others have been celebrated and their display eagerly anticipated, like the Chumash basket chosen by Dr. Jan Timbrook, curator emeritus of anthropology.
The specimens and artifacts are accompanied by portrait photography showing staff among the collections and complemented by antique prints on related subjects. Video interviews with the curators showcase their enthusiasm for their work.
“I chose to display the very first specimen from one of our most prominent shell collectors in the collection, S. Stillman Berry. The first shell in his collection was one that both he and his father played with as babies in the 1800s and is noted as a point of inspiration for him becoming a shell collector.” said Vanessa Delnavaz, Invertebrate Zoology Collection manager.
Brian Barbier, associate curator of anthropology, chose examples of basketry and basketry materials from Northern and Southern California “partly due to my love of California Indian basketry and to show how the whole process of craft making is something we study in anthropology. Representation of the materials ties the fancy finished product to the larger process of the immense skill and work that these talented weavers had. Few can look at the shoots and blades of grass and say, ‘Yeah, I could probably figure out how to turn those into such a well-crafted basket.’ ”
As Ms. McKenzie noted, “They want everybody to be as excited about their specimens as they are. With the addition of that excitement — not to mention expertise — items in drawers transcend the status of mere objects.”
“The more you know about anything, the more interesting it becomes. You could be exposed to the most obscure thing, but if it’s put in context by somebody who’s passionate and knowledgeable about it, you come away thinking, ‘That’s really interesting!’ And that’s what we’re here for,” added Ms. Miller.
“My hope is that the human stories behind museum science, including curators’ childhood dreams to study dinosaurs or seashells for a living, will encourage guests to see museum careers as real and attainable.
“If you pursue your passions, you’ll find that you don’t have to do it in isolation. There are mentors for you out there.”