Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

10 Reviews

Star Travel Rating


Review type

Things to do


Date of travel

March, 2021

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Travelled with

Family including children under 16

Reasons for trip

Due to Covid restrictions, some sections of the Natural History Museum were not available. But most of it was open and accessible and signs directed us on a one-way path through the museum, to the backyard exhibits and nature areas.

This museum has many interesting components and has a long time history of providing education to the Santa Barbara community. It was originally founded in 1916 and has been renovated several times. It covers 17 acres of oak wood in the hills above Santa Barbara, and has the Central Coast’s sole planetarium. You can find literally every science and study of natural history – birds, mammals, marine life, astronomy, geology, palaeontology, and anthropology. Additionally, it has fun, the Museum Backyard hosts interactive exhibits like the butterfly enclosure, dinosaur land, multiple walking paths and a trickling brook for kids to splash in.

Something really special about this natural history museum is the life-size, enormous grey whale mother and calf gracing the entrance. It’s very eye-catching and perfect to pose for a photo.

The building is beautiful, very Spanish style and reflected in many of the local architecture.

The layout of the museum is very effective- the interior has the fixed, long-term exhibits and the exterior has rotating exhibits. These include the butterfly enclosure (which hosts thousands of butterflies in the spring!), Dino Land (large animatronic dinosaurs), a trickling brook for children to play, and staff members posted at certain points. Teaching or explaining cool things. We met a lady holding an injured owl and learned so much about owl behavior from her.

When you first enter the museum, you see the Chumash Life exhibit. These were the local Native Americans that populated the area before the Spanish. It is very extensive and detailed. I liked the way it was laid out- First a description of the Chumash, then divided into a timeline.

The timeline is divided into three main periods- Early, Middle, and Late. Each one details the way of life, how it changed based on the physical environment, food resources, ability to trade with other tribes, and more. I enjoyed the many examples of mortars and pestles and how they developed into “specialist” tools for the type of seed or nut they were harvesting/processing.

Along the way are artefacts such as weapons, pottery, food implements, rope, clothing, etc. Also, there are sections on Chumash dress, government, language, territory, tools (of special interest to me!), and other information about their lifestyle and culture.

I found it of interest that the Chumash had such differences in their culture based on the environmental differences. For instance, the Island Chumash developed very distinct fishing tools and techniques; the Northern Chumash harvested land plants and small game. Meanwhile, the Coastal Chumash had the best of both worlds and were able to access both types of food. Because of the rich food resources, the Chumash grew substantially in population.

The “Backyard”
The back portion of the museum is a wonderland for kids and adults alike! The trickling brook was very fun for my niece and the other children there. It was actually very peaceful, with large shady trees, benches and nearby bathrooms. Adjacent to the trickling brook was a staff member with an owl! She introduced us to the owl and told us her story- the owl was injured in a car wreck and rescued. After she healed, it was determined that she could no longer live in the wild and was brought to live the rest of her days at the museum. She was over 16 years old and had a good life.

The Dinosaur Land featured animatronic dinosaurs, walking paths and lots of information posted on plaques. My niece was not a big fan of this area because the dinosaurs roared very convincingly and it scared her, but older kids loved it and you could see it was a very popular part of the museum.

My absolute favorite exhibit is the Butterflies Alive- an enclosure in the Sprague Butterfly Pavilion. That holds over 1000 live butterflies of every color and variety! Some include the Painted Lady, White Peacock, Julia Longwing, Atala, Zebra Longwing, many Swallowtail varieties and of course, the Monarch! This exhibit is only 2 months in the spring, and it’s very popular.

The museum is mostly handicapped accessible. There are walking paths and certain places that might be slightly hard to navigate for someone in a wheelchair. It is very popular with people of all ages and you are welcome to bring a picnic lunch and use one of the many benches and tables available. Bring sunscreen and a hat; it can get warm. Sneakers are best to navigate the walking paths.

I am so glad that I visited the Natural History Museum. I learned so much and my questions were answered.


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