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Isabelle West: Collections Assistant

Isabelle West, Collections Assistant

Isabelle West is a collector at heart. She “finds joy in every little item,” especially those that carry perspective and narrative, from pine cones found at the Donner Party site to 19th century souvenir bottles of crude oil once carried by our founder, Laura Hecox.

Starting as a volunteer docent in 2016, Isabelle has helped elevate the Museum in a number of ways, from leading school tours to keeping our back of house well organized. Today, as Collections Assistant, she tends to and inventories the many specimens and artifacts of our collections.

Her interest in human and natural history began early on, and grew when classes in folklore and mythology captured her curiosity in community college. She pursued that interest through courses in anthropology, eventually bringing her to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she recently earned a B.A. in anthropology with a focus in Native American studies.

One of her most recent projects entails cataloguing and reorganizing items from Laura Hecox’s collection. In one of her personal highlight moments at the Museum, Isabelle carried out her first accession: a first edition book by feminist author Caroline H. Dall, with a section on Caroline’s visit with Laura, gifted to the Museum by Frank Perry.

Bringing artifacts to light and keeping their details organized and accessible is a way of making the museum experience more inclusive, she says. “Giving people access to information they wouldn’t have otherwise had,” she says, “that can provide perspective that you may not normally receive from family or school. And I think that’s exciting!”

In her spare time, Isabelle maintains her own extensive collection of curious items found at antique faires and garage sales. She enjoys immersing herself in the world of local, do-it-yourself style concerts — even studying Santa Cruz shows by carrying out ethnographic reports — and decorating cakes.

Collections March 2019: Fern Fever

100-year-old preserved fern
Delicate ferns rest between the pages of this 19th century album. Some pages show a single specimen, while others are crowded with the leaves and branches of various species.

Open the delicate pages of this month’s close-up item and you’ll find ferns from long ago. Though carefully pressed and arranged, this pressed plant album doesn’t tell us which species are on display or where they were found. It does, however, offer some perspective into female participation in 19th century science— a relevant point during Women’s History Month — and how people from the Victorian era explored nature through these ancient plants.

Pressed plant album
Entitled “Sea Mosses,” this pressed plant album holds neither mosses nor anything from the sea. Its contents do, however, signify a path taken by some women who sought to engage the natural sciences.

A purpose-built seaweed collecting album, the engraved cover is entitled “Sea Moss,” though no moss or seaweed rest inside. Some pages feature single specimens. On others, a mixed array of leaves and branches almost leaps out at the viewer. In a time where traditional scrapbooking was a popular pastime, books like this were sold to support the collecting and pressing of seaweeds and other plants.

It is one of several albums once part of the James Frazier Lewis estate. Lewis was a son of Donner Party survivor Martha “Patty” Reed Lewis, who had settled in the Santa Cruz area. This collection was given to the Museum in 1945, with a note suggesting that the albums were made by Mr. Lewis’s daughters. We know very little of these possible authors, though, and Lewis’s obituary lists him as survived by a sister and a niece.

This recorded silence on the subject of women is unsurprising, although it is an absence that is being excavated more and more. And it is indeed likely that these albums were made by women. The Victorian era witnessed a widespread seaweed-collecting craze. Yet it was women, already the more prolific scrapbookers, who were the most prolific creators of these pressed albums.

Artistic arrangements of plants, whether fresh or pressed, from land or sea, were considered an appropriate and healthy hobby for young women at a time when their participation in the natural sciences was generally rebuffed. Whereas the men who made pressed plant albums could engage more formally in the emerging profession of botany, female collectors were encouraged to make sentimental and decorative displays.

Clipping on the life and growth of ferns
Found in Laura Hecox’s scrapbook, this clipping details and illustrates the natural history of ferns. Without the aid of flowers, ferns propagate via spores, which take the form of small dots on the underside of the plant’s leaves.

That does not mean they were not active in furthering the field, of course. Recent scholarship acknowledges the importance of the female contribution to botanical fields through non-professional botanical societies. Similar realities unfolded in other disciplines, such as the case of Laura Hecox. An avid naturalist without formal scientific training, Laura’s correspondence with scientists even resulted in two species being named after her: a fossil snail and a type of banana slug.

And how do we find ourselves with a sea moss album featuring ferns? Because pteridomania, or fern fever, also reverberated through Victorian culture. Fern-hunting parties were the rage, ferneries or fern gardens decked houses both large and small, fern motifs exploded across arts and crafts, and pressed ferns were gathered into albums.

This craze was made possible in large part by the invention of the Wardian case by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward in 1829. An early version of the terrarium, these sealed glass cases let British folks bring a variety of exotic plants into their homes, including the ferns that naturally grew happier in the wetter and wilder parts of Britain.

Some also suggest the late 18th century discovery of fern reproduction via spores promoted specific interest by allowing collectors to propagate them at home, in addition to collecting. In one of her scrapbooks, Laura Hecox saved a beautiful article on ferns some time in the late 1890s.

Fern festival at the museum in 1980
Ferns hang from the Museum’s ceiling and branch out from displays at the Museum’s 1980 Fern Festival.

And lest you think pteridomania has disappeared — the American Fern Society, founded in 1893, is still kicking. They promote the cultivation and study of ferns, and have a solid introduction to ferns on their website. Our very own Museum even hosted a Fern Festival in March, 1980. A collaboration between the Natural Science Guild of the Santa Cruz Museum Association and the local Native Plants Society chapter, this three-day event “celebrate[d] the variety and beauty to be found in ferns.”

Stop by the Museum this month to take a closer look at some fabulous pressed ferns. Botanically speaking, March at the Museum also includes a native plants garden design workshop on the 7th, as well as our twice monthly Saturdays in the Soil volunteer gardening program.

Collections February 2019: A Puzzle from the Pleistocene

Mammoth tooth
Partially fragmented, the long ridges of this mammoth tooth once ground grasses and sedges much like cattle do today.

In January, we looked at rocks from our oldest collection. Today, we explore the Museum’s newest fossil: a fragment of a locally-discovered tooth that belonged to a Columbian mammoth. Not only is this an exciting specimen for the Museum’s Collections, it also brings into the public sphere another piece of what local paleontology expert Frank Perry describes as the “giant jigsaw puzzle” of paleontology.

The tooth is about the size of a half-gallon of milk. On its crown you can see ridges that would, some hundreds of thousands of years ago, grind grasses and sedges much like cattle do today. Mammuthus columbi was primarily a grassland grazer. These grinding teeth grew in sets of four, and were replaced several times throughout the animal’s life, just like in elephants. Its enamel plates are slightly tilted, which helped to keep the teeth sharp as they wore down.

The Columbian mammoth was one of several mammoth species that lived during the Pleistocene, about 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. It would have appeared in North America about one million years ago, where its range stretched from Canada down to Nicaragua and Honduras. In contrast to the thick coat of its relative the woolly mammoth, the Columbian mammoth probably did not have much hair.

Fossilized mastodon tooth
Notice the more pronounced cusps of this fossilized tooth from a mastodon, a distant cousin of the mammoth. This difference helped mastodons to feed on woodier plan material, like trees and shrubs.

They stood up to 14 feet high at the shoulder and 13 to 15 feet long, with tusks up to 16 feet long. These animals may have weighed between 18,000 and 22,000 pounds, just under the weight of a school bus. Compare a tooth from a mastodon’s skull to this mammoth, and you’d notice higher cusps: an indicator that mastodons ate woodier shrubs and trees.

Our newest tooth was given to the Museum by longtime friend Frank Perry. In a recent email titled “Mammoth Puzzle,” Frank wrote to say he received a piece of tooth that was collected several decades ago at an excavation in Watsonville, and could it be the missing part of a similar tooth from the same area, already in the Museum Collections?

Here he was referring to the 1973 discovery of a Columbian mammoth tusk, a whole tooth (weighing a whopping 10 pounds!), and a smaller tooth fragment. With great excitement, we scheduled an appointment to compare the two partial teeth to see if we indeed had a match.

Fortunately for us, Frank Perry loves to share. He sat down with us to offer some of his personal history studying Santa Cruz County’s fossils, and that includes several mammoth finds over his career. Often these discoveries have been teeth, which are so huge and durable that they often outlast the rest of the animal’s body.

It’s fairly common, Frank says, for these discoveries to happen at construction sites or coastal cliffs, or any place where ancient sediments get exposed. And while our two teeth were not a match, we weren’t wrong to hope: Frank points out that in the history of paleontology, after someone finds a fragment, it sometimes takes “50 or 100 years before a fossil is found that shows what the rest of the animal looked like.” Paleontologist Charles Repenning, for example, found the remaining parts of a fossil pinniped — a relative of modern sea lions — more than half a century after the original fragment was discovered.

Part of the reason these mammoth teeth are so cool is because most fossils found in Santa Cruz are marine. Many people have found seashells, whale fossils and pinniped parts. However, they’re also interesting because they represent the contemporary set of large animals, or megafauna, that lived during the Pleistocene.

Mammoths and mastodons weren’t the only megafauna to stomp the landscape — camels, giant ground sloths and saber-tooth cats also roamed North America. To learn more about the Pleistocene Epoch and its animals, check out the University of California Museum of Paleontology. For those who still wonder how the Museum’s new tooth — and paleontology in general — might matter to their lives, Frank makes an excellent case for the joys of exploring the deep past.

“Everyone is curious about their own genealogy,” he says. “Paleontology is nature’s genealogy.” Whether learning how changing climates have shaped our lands or tracing evolutionary relationships between extinct species, paleontology can tell us more about how we came to be. And one way to fill in the gaps of our past, Frank says, is careful observation.

“In paleontology,” Frank says, “you often hear the statement, ‘the present is the key to the past.’ By looking at modern day plants, animals and geologic processes, we can better understand the past. But observation is also a key to the past. Learning to see these things — that takes practice.”

Rebecca Hernandez: Board Member

Rebecca Hernandez, Board Member

Meet Rebecca Hernandez: artist, scholar, educator, and newest member of our Board of Directors. Rebecca has served as Director of the UCSC American Indian Resource Center since 2014, and brings a wealth of experience in having guided and worked with museums and universities throughout her career. We’re delighted to have her join our team!

A nascent admirer of the natural world, Rebecca was not always a fan of trekking around the outdoors. She grew up in Los Angeles, an asthmatic child hesitantly playing in a schoolyard set beside a traffic-clogged freeway. “I associated being outdoors with being uncomfortable, nervous and worried,” she says.

But, after succumbing to the charms of California landscapes and pushing herself to explore the natural world, she’s now an avid walker and budding naturalist. Whether hiking the trails in the Fort Ord Natural Reserve or simply walking near her home, she loves to watch seasonal changes in flora and fauna, and now seeks to help others find the same joys.

“I think it’s similar for a lot of folks,” she says, “where the outdoors isn’t associated with recreation. It’s either associated with hard work or danger. I want to help people see that there’s so much more.”

After earning a B.F.A. in painting from the College of Santa Fe, New Mexico, she pursued her M.F.A. in exhibition design and museum studies at California State University Fullerton, followed by her M.A. in American Indian studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. In the past, she has helped guide the Museum’s educational efforts in sharing Native American history.

“Often, when we talk about American Indians,” she says, “it tends to be about loss, difficulties, struggle, and the realities of what occurred. But it’s also important to talk about the contributions, the joy, survivance, and the fact that we’re still here and contributing in important ways.”