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Karl Hutterer: Planning for the Future of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Great thought and careful consideration have gone into the process of crafting the museum's master development plan

On July 20, representatives of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History went before a hearing of the Historic Landmarks and Planning commissions. The word is out: The museum is planning something big. The questions are swirling: What is the museum up to? How big a project is being proposed? Will the museum be bashed in the course of the public planning review like other institutions have? How much will the project cost?

The museum is in its 96th year of serving our community and for nearly a century has been one of the most beloved cultural institutions in Santa Barbara. Maintained exclusively by private support, the museum is truly a work of the community. Albert Einstein recognized this when he visited the museum in 1931 and said, “I can see that this museum has been built by the work of love.”

Far beyond the borders of Santa Barbara, the museum is renowned nationally and internationally not only for its location in the midst of a gorgeous piece of nature but also for its superb programs in science, education and community service.

The museum maintains a staff of 14 full-time scientists who every year discover and describe dozens of new species of living things and generate new knowledge that is of fundamental importance to biodiversity, the restoration of damaged ecosystems and the management of natural resources.

The museum offers educational programs for every age, from toddlers to senior citizens. In the 2009-10 school year, it hosted 19,000 schoolchildren. More importantly, the museum’s educational services have become a critically important factor in supporting and improving science education in our region. The museum also plays a central role locally in the national Leave No Child Inside movement that entices children away from the electronic screen and reconnects them with nature.

If everything is going so well, why is the museum working on ambitious new plans? There are three principal reasons. For one, the world has changed dramatically since the museum’s founding in 1916, and the pace of change continues to accelerate. The future of the natural world that the museum studies and teaches about has become a topic of grave concern. Our community has changed drastically, having increased in size nearly tenfold since the museum’s founding. And what museums do and how they do it has changed greatly in the midst of the information revolution.

The urgency of planning ahead is increased by the fact that the Museum of Natural History’s admittedly outstanding programs are accomplished within aging and deteriorating facilities. Many buildings are beyond their natural life expectancy, they are in poor condition, and they don’t comply with current codes or contemporary museum standards. And, over the decades, well-intentioned museum development has done serious injustice to the gorgeous streamside environment within which the museum’s facilities are set.

Finally, several years ago, the City of Santa Barbara demanded that the museum develop a master plan for its future development and submit it for approval. The current planning effort complies with this city mandate.

The planning effort is guided by a series of principles that include the design of facilities that effectively support the museum’s scientific, educational and community programs while connecting visitors and staff with the stunning natural environment of the site; the restoration and conservation of sensitive environments; the preservation and rehabilitation of key historic structures; and continued cultivation of a human-scale, intimate experience for visitors.

The draft plan presented at the meeting on July 20 proposes a careful rehabilitation of the historic architectural core of the museum while replacing the other buildings with new facilities that would be designed to meet both current museum needs and standards and achieve the highest level of environmental sustainability possible. More than buildings, the draft plan seeks an improved, integrated environmental context by preserving and enhancing open space and riparian corridors along Mission Creek.

These plans are the result of three years of concerted work by a team architects and consultants, together with museum trustees and staff as well as community advisers. The planning work has been inordinately complex because of the confluence of multiple constraints, including the size of the site, its many environmental sensitivities, the location in a high fire zone as well as a residential neighborhood, the need to protect historic resources, and the need to meet critical program requirements. The museum has been engaged in a sustained community outreach effort from the outset of the planning work.

The members of the Historic Landmarks and Planning commissions expressed appreciation of the museum as one of Santa Barbara’s key cultural institutions and of the planning efforts presented to them. Many specific questions still need to be studied as the process of public review proceeds and, no doubt, details of the plan will change before it receives the city’s stamp of approval.

Details of the proposed plan can be found on the museum’s website; click here.

— Karl Hutterer has been executive director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History since 2000.

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