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Art Mirrors Life in Exhibit of Antique Prints at Natural History Museum

Historic illustration of durian fruit.
Historic illustration of durian fruit. (Berthe Hoola Van Nooten)

Fifty rare and historic prints from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s collection of some 3,500 engravings and lithographs will be on display June 22-Sept. 3 in the museum’s John and Peggy Maximus Gallery.

The collection, relating to the history of scientific research and exploration, spans the period from about 1600-1900 and encompasses all subjects of natural history.
The purpose of natural history art is to assist the scientist in their work to identify, describe, classify and name species. Many of the illustrations were made during an era in which the world’s flora and fauna were being described for the first time.

As European voyages sailed to new lands beyond the boundaries of the known world, naturalists aboard documented their findings, and brought back vast collections of plants and animals new to science.

Because images captured nature in ways that complemented written descriptions, a visual record became an essential element of this process. The detailed illustrations were published in significant numbers so others could share information.

“These unique works give us a glimpse into history and how the sciences developed,” said Maximus Gallery curator Linda Miller. “For our summer show, we selected images that correlate to the museum’s extensive natural history collections of more than 3.5 million objects.

“These objects, including our antique prints, are used for research by our curatorial staff as well as visiting scientists from around the world. They provide valuable data and serve as a vast archive for ongoing investigations.”
What began as a fundamental aid to scientific inquiry became prized works in themselves and were sought after for their intrinsic beauty — a blend of art and science.
Entry to the exhibit The Art of Natural History: Rare Treasures From Our Antique Print Collection is free with paid museum admission. The Maximus Gallery is open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., excluding June 30 when the museum hosts the soldout Santa Barbara Wine + Food Festival.
For more information about the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, visit

— Briana Sapp Tivey for Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.


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