Two galleries offer fresh looks at local history
Ten million years ago, Santa Cruz was underwater, and sea cows and 50-foot megalodon sharks swam where the Santa Cruz Mountains later emerged.
Then came the Ice Age. The sea level dropped, pushing the shoreline west. Mammoths and mastodons—giant tusked beasts—roamed at the future site of the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park.
Santa Cruz’s fossil evidence of land mammals shows only the largest species, since smaller skeletons are less likely to withstand time, says Frank Perry, research associate at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, where visitors can see a mastodon skull unearthed in Aptos Creek in 1980 and a sea cow skeleton found in Felton in 1963.
Prehistoric wildlife in Santa Cruz was likely similar to what’s found in Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits, where scientists have excavated remains of extinct saber-toothed cats, large wolves and giant ground sloths.
“Here in Santa Cruz, we’ve found fossils of mammoths, mastodons and also horses, but from the La Brea Tar Pits you get a much more complete picture,” Perry says. “That includes things like giant birds, bigger than anything that flies today, and also camels and lions.”
In the dark, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s taxidermy gallery looks like an environmentalist’s wild dream, with a hundred glass eyes of lifelike birds, reptiles and four-legged creatures peering toward the room’s center.
Carefully stepping around a replica of a monarch butterfly cluster, Heather Moffat, the executive director since February, flips on the lights, preparing for a second-grade field trip from Gateway School.
As the Natural History Museum in Seabright marks its 110th anniversary, plans are underway to revitalize its exhibits. The highlight will be a new gallery featuring a redesigned tide-pool touch tank and the local natural history collection of Laura Hecox, the museum’s founder.
Hecox grew up on Lighthouse Point, where her father was appointed the city’s first lighthouse keeper in 1870. As a young girl she scoured the cliffs for interesting shells, eventually amassing an impressive collection which she deeded to the city in 1904 for a new museum, says Moffat.
“Imagine a little girl living there on Lighthouse Point, totally enamored with the natural world. She was clambering into tidepools, developing her collection of shells and rocks and specimens,” says Moffat. “It got to the point where she became known for her collection and people would bring her things.”
Before Moffat worked in natural history museums—most recently in Santa Barbara—she was a paleontologist. In the 1990s, she studied fossil coral in the Bahamas, sand dollars and sea urchins in Las Vegas and rocks in England, until realizing what she loved the most was working with children.
“What gets me, as a female scientist—this museum was founded on a little girl’s curiosity, a little girl who felt that the things she found were worth saving and sharing,” says Moffat.
The $65,000 gallery renovation is expected to be completed in June. It will include not only Hecox’s specimen cabinets, but also a microscope workstation where visitors can examine natural objects.
“We want that space to be driven by visitors’ curiosity,” Moffat says.
Next year, Moffat says, she plans to add more astronomy nights, nature sketching events and hikes. She also plans to expand monthly speaker programs such as “Naturalist Night,” which brings scientists and historians to the museum for public talks. The next one is 7 p.m. Jan. 21, titled “The Chautauqua Nature Study Movement,” by historian Don Kohrs, about the beginnings of open space conservation efforts in the Monterey Bay area.
“Our mission is to connect people to nature and be stewards,” says Moffat. “I want everything we do to be anchored in nature.”
For more than a century, the museum has assembled a collection of 16,000 fossils, shells, insects, Native American baskets, mounted animals, and other curiosities. Much of it is in the basement, in the museum’s archives.
Moffat says that in the new year, the museum plans to rotate its collection, make exhibits interactive, add more school programs, and become known as a dynamic institution.
Premiering in January, a special exhibit curated by Perry over 20 years features the “Auto Tree” in Big Basin—a giant coast redwood famous for a fire scar large enough to fit an automobile inside. In April, the 27th annual scientific illustrator showcase, “The Art of Nature,” returns to the museum.
Until six years ago, the museum was owned and operated by the city of Santa Cruz. Now the museum is independent, supported by grants, ticket sales, donations and an endowment.
“While we are 110 years old, we are still a fledgling institution in many ways,” Moffat says. “We are coming into our own as a nonprofit.”
Blasts from the past
For a look at the more recent past, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History’s newly renovated history gallery, opened in October, traces the city’s ethnic and cultural roots from the 1800s to present day. The new gallery encompasses a wider range of voices than ever before.
Additions include a geodesic dome next to a story about hippies in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and a life-sized model fishing boat accompanied by the tale of around 60 Italian families who came to Santa Cruz in the 1880s and ran a thriving fishing empire by the wharf.
The renovation took three years to complete, and involved input from museum visitors, such as an audio reenactment by MAH members of the story of a black slave who bought his freedom and came to Santa Cruz for the Gold Rush. On the wall at the gallery’s entrance, visitors can post sticky notes with suggestions on what to add.
“History doesn’t end. We make new history every day,” says Marla Novo, curator of collections, “and we wanted to show that as our community evolves, our gallery evolves.”
The story of Croatians in the Pajaro Valley apple business in the late 1800s and early 1900s is represented by a family heirloom traditional dress on display. Photographs from Santa Cruz’s two historical Chinatowns hang at the room’s center, near a mannequin clothed in the jeans, sweatshirt and head covering of a Watsonville berry picker.
Those with ties to local politics can see their marks on history up close, like in a window display with “Yes on D: Save Lighthouse Field!” posters from the 1970s when a proposal for a hotel and convention center threatened the open space.
A Watsonville Brown Beret uniform hangs behind glass from the 1990s, when the activist group formed in response to gang-related violence.
“The whole idea of the gallery is to show people that we all make history,” Novo says, “and it’s an empowering story.