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Collections Close-Up: In Touch with Touch Pools

A parent with two children leans over the intertidal touch pool at the museum.

Since long before Laura Hecox hauled her petticoats across the rocky and rich worlds of West Cliff’s tide pools, the natural wonders of Monterey Bay have captivated all who encounter them. Pounded by the mighty surf and subject to the extremities of the changing tides, the plants and animals of the intertidal zone are especially intriguing. Efforts to get closer to these and other creatures held within the depths of the ocean gave rise to the modern practice of holding marine life in aquariums. This month we explore our interactive side by examining a special form of this phenomenon: the museum’s touch pool.

Museum staff in 1977 stand around the then new touch pool exhibit.
First touch pool with Charles Prentiss, Nikki Silva and John Anderson

To the outpouring of public delight, what was then the Santa Cruz City Museum poured gallons upon gallons of seawater into our first touch pool in 1977. Curator Charles Prentiss designed this pool, which was built with the assistance of Museum friends and local companies. It consisted of a circular fiberglass tub, collared by redwood boards. An educational structure from the start, the edges of the pool were inscribed with labels describing the life teaming within. A particular fan favorite, featured often in local news articles, was any kind of sea star. 

A black and white image of a girl holding up a sea star from a 1977 Sentinel article.
Sentinel article, 1977

Early on, the Museum hosted classes on marine life in tidepools and the broader ocean, both at this interior pool and along the local coast. Touchpools have long offered direct and accessible engagement with seldom-seen creatures from another world. From the outset, gentle engagements with the animals have been a must, as the modern use of aquaria and touchpools emphasize their function as tools for the empathy and conservation of wildlife – an especially tricky task for animals that aren’t typically seen as charismatic as big cats and beautiful birds, like prickly urchins and slimy sea slugs.  

The Museum’s original touchpool was brought into being during a boom in local marine science and conservation construction. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation formed in 1978, and successfully opened a world class aquarium showcasing the bay’s unique marine environment in 1984. UCSC’s Long Marine Lab was first opened in 1978, a research lab with early public facing components that ultimately developed into today’s incredible Seymour Marine Discovery Center

The initial boom in the popularity of aquaria was driven by a sense of wonder, though with a greater focus on rampant collection rather than empathy and conservation. The first burst of aquarium popularity was inspired in the 1850s by Englishman Phillip Henry Gosses’s books on aquarium construction, specimen collection, and observation. Packed with stunning illustrations and spelling binding descriptions, the coastal collecting mania Gosse’s work inspired overtook middle class Victorian fern fever and bolstered support for the creation of large public aquariums. Long before the institutions above created their own aquaria, a fascination for the “natural aquariums” of Seabright led local residents to bring bathtubs to the beach and fill them with tide pool creatures in the late 1800s. In her Reminiscences of Seabright, Elizabeth Forbes notes that despite the community’s best caretaking efforts, the creatures were unhappy, and they were returned to the sea before too long.

Today’s Seabright touch pool depends upon special permits and CA Fish and Wildlife Department regulations for the collection, care, and use of specific marine plants and animals. Rebuilt in 2014, the current pool provides enhanced physical accessibility through the use of low-slung walls and clear sides, while portraying a more realistic sense of the tidepool with its rocky border aesthetic. Housed within the SC Naturalist Exhibit, the pool pays homage to the life of our foundational collector Laura Hecox, whose story of being an untrained female nature observer at the turn of the 20th century illustrates how anyone, regardless of formal credentials, can be a naturalist.

Former museum director Heather Moffat McCoy stands by the old tide pool exhibit in 2016 as she makes plans for designing a new one.
Heather Moffat McCoy, former director, makes plans for a new pool in 2016

In 2020, we’re still appreciating algae and asking naturalists how best to start tidepooling – but we’re doing so at safe distances or masked. In the same way, Covid19 has implications for the care of our living collections. In general, the pandemic has been difficult for zoos and aquariums whose obligations to care for their animals and plants do not get any cheaper even as they lose funding from admission prices. The lack of admissions also means that animals are becoming shy of human guests – losing a level of comfort that is important for the well-being of the animals and the success of the exhibit.  

While our living collections are small in scale compared to other institutions, they still take special consideration – like making sure we have lights on timers to extend the “daylight” our touch pool residents would have experienced during normal open hours. A return to open hours presents its own new problems – how might the delicate balance of water chemistry be changed by an influx of extra hand sanitizer?  

For more about the nuts and bolts of what it takes to keep our touch pool running, in both ordinary and extraordinary times, as well as the educational and ethical dimensions of working with these plants and animals in our upcoming event, Tidepools and Touch: Care for Living Collections.

The intertidal touch pool exhibit seen from above as it appears today.
The intertidal touch pool remodel in 2016

Collections Close-Up: Making Sense of Made-for-Sale

Walking down the collection’s basketry aisle, drinking in the breathtaking variety of shape, texture, and technique, a glint might catch your eye. Amongst the warm sheen of stripped willow shoot or the bright yellow of dyed porcupine quill, you might catch the unmistakable sparkle of glass. It might surprise you to find such a material on the basketry shelves. Last month we talked about how the spooky or the scary can spark learning opportunities, here at SCMNH we also seek to unpack surprises. Following that course, this month we will be digging deeper into one of the wonders of our basketry collections: a  “made for sale” basket.

Glass bottle wrapped in basketry, made by the Klamath River Tribes

Following this sparkling glass to its source, you would find a bottle-shaped basket, twined in warm browns and light yellows. The red-brown was likely from tule root, the yellow from tule or cattail leaves, and the black accent, dyed tule. The alternating stripes of color end in an attached coaster-like platform. Taking a closer look, you would discover that the shape arises from the glass bottle it overlays. The basket was collected in Northern California and is attributed to the Klamath River tribes. Today’s federally recognized Klamath River tribes are composed of the Klamaths, Modoc and Yahooskin, distinct peoples whose basketry traditions have similarities.

The absence of specific information about the basket’s weaver is contrasted by our knowledge of the collector. Maude Silvey was already a longtime resident of Santa Cruz by 1970, when she donated her personal collection of more than one hundred baskets to the great joy of museum staff and community. News articles of the time reflect the extent of her interest in baskets, where we learn that “Mrs. Silvey had visited northern California Indian tribes to observe weaving techniques and to obtain baskets for the collection.”  

Close up of the top of a glass bottle wrapped in basketry, made by the Klamath River Tribes

Her story unfolds against the broader backdrop of collecting trends at the time. Born in the 1880s, Maude Silvey’s early years coincided with the raging temperature of America’s “canastromania” or basket fever. Coined in 1904 by Smithsonian curator Otis Mason, this frenzied collection of baskets swept American culture from about 1890 to 1920. It was spurred by several factors; from the leisure time of an emerging middle class that was being lured west by railroads to the notion that baskets were primitive but pristine objects made by a doomed race that needed to be salvaged.  (For an incredible discussion of these interwoven complexities, check out Basket Weavers for the California Curio Trade, a book exploring the lives of Elizabeth and Louise Hickox, weavers from the Klamath River area). 

Many well-known collections of California basketry were developed around this time, including that of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology. It was their Lawrence Dawson who helped identify and describe baskets in our own collection in the late seventies. A significant percentage of which were described as “made for sale”. 

It seems like a straightforward term at first, applied to baskets made for commercial consumption, like the ones collected on Mrs. Silvey’s trip. Probing the meaning of this category, we might ask how such trips were planned, how the weavers were compensated, and how they emphasized traditional techniques or innovated with them. Early 20th century museums tended to deliberately obscure these kinds of commercial exchanges in their interpretations or avoid displaying baskets that diverged from anthropological understandings of tradition, treating indigenous weavers as if they were confined to the past rather than living craftspersons. 

In examining these aspects of our collection, we find that our “made for sale” baskets fit two main types. Some baskets take traditional (a complex term itself, which we might also phrase as “in the style of objects made pre-contact”) forms and functions, and appear to have been sold to collectors unused. An example of these is a cooking basket with neither food residue nor burns from cooking stones. 

The other type, which includes the bottle baskets, have forms or functions that are innovations from tradition. Traditional water carrying baskets in California Indian basketry would have relied on watertight weaving and some kind of sealant, rather than a glass center. Other baskets in our collection that follow this type include a tiered hanging shelf, a wall hanging plaque with a holding pouch, and others.


As National Native American Heritage Month, November is an opportunity for institutions to pay deliberate attention to the history and continuing culture of America’s indigenous peoples. Unpacking the words we use to describe the objects in our collections, especially across cultural differences and within the context of colonialism, is a critical component of good stewardship. To delve further into our basketry collections and the forces that shape them, check out this month’s Collections Close Up event on November 12th.

Collections Close-Up: Storytelling with Skulls

This month’s Collections Close Up stares out at us from the intersection of spooky, stunning, and scientific – of storytelling with skulls. To set the scene, we introduce a newer member of the Museum’s collection – the skull of a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), part of a complete skeleton given to the museum from the collection of Ray Bandar. 

Turkey Vulture Skull

These birds are no stranger to Halloween-esque themes – carrion eaters like turkey vultures feed on the decaying flesh of dead animals. While this is exactly as spooky as it sounds, it’s also an essential ecological role. By consuming dead animals, turkey vultures and other carrion eaters help reduce the amount of disease in the ecosystem. 

It’s also this very behavior that has inspired the term vulture culture – an evolving subculture of people who are captivated by the artistic allure of body parts of dead animals. Of course, there’s more to a skull then how nicely it would cover part of your wall. From a science education perspective, skulls tell stories of the adaptations that animals use to survive in the world around them. For example, here we note a strong, sharp beak for tearing meat from bones rather than sipping nectar from flowers or straining food from water. Researchers dig deeper into the morphology, or structures of skulls, looking at hundreds of individuals bones to build our understanding of animals’ lives.

Collector Ray Bandar, was no stranger to balancing a morbid fascination of skeletons with their scientific and educational value. So driven by his passion to study nature’s “sculptures”, the humble Bay Area high school teacher spent 60 years as a field associate for the California Academy of Sciences (CAS). While his collection contained everything from birds to bears, his particular speciality was marine mammal skulls. Working in collaboration with Academy scientists and the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network efforts, Bandar spent decades oncall for collecting trips from Bodega Bay to Año Nuevo.

Day or night, whenever the calls came, the first part of the process for deceased animals was also the most important: collecting the data. Information such as the location, species, sex, size, apparent cause of death are critical for a specimen’s contribution to science. He would often participate in the entire messy, squishy and smelly process of taking these animals from “From Death to Display”.

Skulls are collected because they are information-rich – scientists can learn a lot from the wear on the teeth to the size of the brain case and more. They are also expedient – it is easier to store the skull of a whale than an entire individual. Nonetheless, in rare or scientifically valuable cases, like Orca O319 – scientists may take the whole animal.

Ray Bandar in his home, photo by Ross Feighery

Whether whole or in pieces, Bandar contributed thousands of specimens to Cal Academy’s collections, particularly California sea lion skulls. Collected under CAS permits, many of the specimens were stored in his home, or “Bone Palace”. A stunning take on the palatial, specimen rich displays of natural history collections throughout time, Bandar’s labor of love inspired numerous articles and even a documentary or two.

Never the shy collector, Ray was also a constant public fixture at the Academy. He designed exhibits, wrote labels and staffed events, particularly around Halloween. Today, elements of his collection are still on display, supporting the CAS’s stories of skulls.  

After Ray’s death in 2017, well documented members of his skeletal menagerie were relocated to Academy collections storage. The folks at the Academy generously shared the remaining wealth of Bandar’s kingdom with science education organizations – including your local natural history museum. Thrilled to take part in the rich legacy of “Bones” Bandar, Museum staff collaborated to select a set of specimens to flesh out the gaps in our collection, focusing on enhancing our capacity to engage visitors with the striking elements of the natural world. 

And that has been the case for this turkey vulture skull – whose first public debut was as a creepy carrion eater with an ecological heart of gold for 2019’s “The Birds” themed Museum of the Macabre. Other Bandar specimens, including a second turkey vulture skull, showcased biodiversity – enriching our “exploded bird” exhibit case. 

Macabre has traditionally been our evening of curiosities, creatures, and cocktails – where we dig into the seemingly strange or ostensibly awful elements of the natural world to create space for different kinds of connections. Join us this year for online events, whether for creepy caves, macabre mushrooms, taxidermy tips or a deeper dive into cabinets of curiosities and their relationship to modern museums. 

Collections Close-Up: Digging Into Learning

Fossils tell the changing story of life on earth over millennia – but they can also tell stories of more recent changes. For this month’s Collections Close-Up, we look at an ancient specimen and its deep timeline, as well as a more modern, local legacy of integrating paleontological adventures with educating young minds.

Photo of fossil leaf from the Miocene era.
Fossil leaf, Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History collection

This fragment of a leaf-imprinted shale is a small slice of the Monterey Formation, an olive-gray to light-gray layer of shale and mudstone that underlies swaths of the Santa Cruz area. This formation, rich in once-organic material, was formed during the Miocene. Defined as the period of time between 5.33 and 23.03 million years ago, the Miocene was a period of great change for earth’s ecosystems. The earth’s ecosystems became cooler and drier, and animals like horses began to look more like they do today. And while there is much to explore in the world of Miocene mammals, this period also saw the first emergence of kelp forests and grasslands.

As distant as it may seem, you can explore the way the Miocene shapes present day places such as the Monterey Formation mudstone of Ano Nuevo Point or the ancient ocean beds that are today’s unique Santa Cruz Sandhills. Exploring these landscapes is a great way to observe stories of ancient life. In some places it is also possible to collect elements of these stories, as long as you maintain a responsible collecting ethic: research and follow the local laws, and consider the specific concerns of paleontology ethics

This month’s feature was given to the Museum in 1974, where it is preserved alongside several similar specimens collected by high school students, who were led in their own exploration of ancient local life by teacher William Miller. Bill, as he was also called, was an earth sciences instructor with an active local presence in organizations like the Museum Commission, the Boy Scouts, and the Gem and Mineral Society. His passion for promoting public understanding of science made him a common feature in the local papers in the 1970s, speaking about fossil whale finds and similar spectacular local fossils. 

Newspaper article with headline Fossilized Whale Skulls Found

Miller’s former students have fond memories of his classes, including his classroom’s improvised paleontology lab and how it helped them wrap their head around the history of the earth. But he was also a big believer in teaching beyond the classroom. Miller organized frequent field trips across the Santa Cruz County landscape for his students to learn firsthand about geology, paleontology, and even litter. 

Newspaper article with headline Students get some practical knowledge about litterbugs.

Oftentimes it is the eye catching creatures, like the whales and sea cows of ancient Santa Cruz oceans that capture our attention more than the subtle beauty of a delicate leaf impression. Another educator who has long been involved with the museum can speak to that as well – Wayne Thompson is a local middle school teacher, and paleontologist who helped prepare our stunning mastodon skull for exhibit in the early 1980s. His interests in science were encouraged by his education, and in particular, his teacher Bill Miller. Today, Wayne carries forward this legacy of connecting kids to science through paleontology – brimming with contagious excitement, he’s always happy to help the Museum, and always looking for ways to get his students involved in his paleontology projects. 

He’s particularly keen to explore how new tools, like virtual field trips and 3D scanning technologies, can get folks excited about fossils and other topics. Now that health precautions have moved many schools into virtual mode, the enthusiasm of teachers like Wayne for experiencing new tools is even more critical. To dig deeper into what we can learn from the Museum’s fossils, and to explore how one of our county’s teachers is meeting the challenges of virtual education in uncertain times, check out this month’s Collections Close-Up event.

Explore geology and paleontology with items from our Online Museum Store.
Learn more about geology with our Rockin' Pop Up programs.

Collections Close-Up: Collecting Spaces

One hundred and fifteen years ago this month, the Santa Cruz Museum first opened its doors to the public. Those doors were not the ones that visitors might walk through today. Indeed, the museum has had several homes in its evolution from the city’s first public museum to our present form as the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. As we continue to provide activities and inspiration for connecting with the natural world in this moment of physical distancing, this month’s Collections Close-Up looks at how the migration of our spaces influences our evolving collections.

Santa Cruz Lighthouse, early 1880s

A familiar foundation to our story is Laura Hecox, whose lighthouse museum provided the first home to what would become our collections. In 1869, Santa Cruz’s first lighthouse was built near the site of todays’ Mark Abbott Memorial lighthouse. Laura Hecox, having taken up the post of keeper after her father Adna passed away in 1883, made her collection available to the public as part of her regular lighthouse tours. Tall wooden shelves were packed full of carefully cataloged fossils, shells, birds, curios, and artifacts, which photographs from the 1880s depict as full to bursting. Her collection was a popular and respected local attraction and, in the early 1900s, was solicited for exhibition at Santa Cruz’s first library. 

Main Library, 1904

On April 14, 1904, the main branch of Santa Cruz’s public library opened to the public. The two story building housed more than 14,000 books on its first floor, with ample space to expand into its lower level. Plans for this space were already underway, and not just for books –  on April 13, 1904, Laura Hecox had already deeded a portion of her collection to make this space a public museum. Her friend, local luminary Dr. Charles Anderson, was quoted in a contemporary newspaper praising the combined virtue of libraries and museums in providing both explanations and examples for public knowledge. 

The museum opened to popular acclaim on August 21, 1905. While Laura’s collection seeded the museum, we know that from the beginning her collection was already being expanded. Laura made sure to acknowledge friends of the library who gave additional items for the opening, from a centipede collected in Arizona to Chilean coins. Despite this variety, the collection is usually described as one of natural history, and the library noted that they generated increased demand for books on natural history. This success of the museum as an educational endeavor would influence its next home. 

Santa Cruz High School after 1915

Santa Cruz’s first dedicated high school building opened in 1897, but tragically burned down in 1913. Fortunately, the Museum was relocated to the high school after it was rebuilt in 1915. This was likely motivated by the need for space, but a place of learning seemed the right home for the collections. Echoing others, the Santa Cruz Evening News described the high school as “preeminently the place in Santa Cruz where numbers are engaged to study. It is therefore a place where a museum may do a great deal of good.”

Some years after Santa Cruz’s original public museum collections took on the role of a high school teaching collection, the community’s museum fervor was rekindled. In 1929 Humphrey Pilkington gave his collection of Native American artifacts and other items to Santa Cruz on the condition that a dedicated museum be established to house it. The Tyrrell Arts and Crafts House, a community hub in the park adjacent to the Seabright Library, was chosen as the Santa Cruz Museum’s new location. As curator Jed Scott and various hard working volunteers set about cataloging and organizing Pilkington’s collections, they also began to solicit other gifts to the museum. Significantly, the museum lobbied and was successful in transferring the Hecox collection from the high school to Seabright. As part of the transfer, many items that had lost labels and records while at the high school had to be re-identified.

Tyrrell House, Early 1950s

Thus united the Hecox and Pilkington collections, along with many other invaluable donations, that remain in Seabright to the present day. In the mid 1950s they made one final, if incremental move into what was then the Seabright Library. After the library withdrew in 1965, the museum expanded into the entirety of the building, later making actual physical expansions to the rear of the building that today constitute staff offices and collections storage.  

In these spaces we ground our present efforts to preserve the collections for the future. As complex as the past is that brought us here, we also have a rich history of envisioning remodels, relocations, and other possible futures for what the museum could look like. And while we never expected this virtual future, we are confident that, in the same way we have been an important feature of the Santa Cruz community for 115 years, we will continue to meet the challenges that face the community, with our community, for another 115 years and more.  For a deeper dive into the intersection of our collections and space, different dreams for the Museum through time, and our current conservation efforts in our Carnegie building, register for our virtual Collections Close-Up event on August 13th.

Collections Close-Up: She Studies Seashells by the Seashore

Member Exclusive: Join Collections Manager Kathleen Aston for a special webinar on July 9 at 5:30 p.m. as she explores the specimens and stories of our malacology collection. Learn more.

Front cover of Tide-drift Shells of the Monterey Bay Region

“Even if there are no collectible shells, a walk along the tide drift will yield recognizable bits and pieces of fifteen to twenty species. Don’t spurn them. Half the joy in collecting is in the learning process; these imperfect pieces are valuable starters – studying them will enable us to recognize and identify the perfect specimen when we finally find it. Shells, like gold, are where you find them.”

-Hulda Hoover McLean

Thus advises Hulda Hoover McLean in her introduction to the Tide Drift Shells of the Monterey Bay Region. Originally published in 1975 as the Tide Drift Shells of the Waddell Beaches, naturalist and conservationist McLean wrote the book in response to what she saw as a growing interest in local young people at the time in the natural features of the world around them. Her book could only further captivate them. The identification guide reads as an informative yet personal story – grounded as it is in a lifetime of collecting shells of all kinds (and levels of completeness!) on the shores of the Monterey Bay. 

Enthusiastic gratitude towards scientific advisers is balanced by wry encouragement not to bother professionals with amateur questions unless absolutely necessary; antique quotes describing the richness of local mollusk diversity are displayed opposite sorrowful personal observations on the diminished number of shells available today; the pageantry of tidepool creatures is lauded while the “horror” of shell art and crafts is disparaged. Organized by scientific class and family, the standard identifications for these shells are enhanced by local context and practical notes. 

red abalone specimen and illustration

Red abalone (Haliotis rufescens), is pictured here both in the book’s illustration and as a specimen from the Museum’s collection. Hulda notes that abalones have “an almost flamboyant beauty with their graceful shape and brilliantly opalescent interior.” In addition to their distinguishing identification information, McLean places the various locally found abalone species into the context of their conservation restrictions (now increased) as well as local fishing and aquaculture projects.

Average sizes are given for each specimen, like the 10 mm San Pedro Olives (Olivella strigata) pictured here. Often with the smaller shells, Hulda advises the potentially overwhelmed sheller to simply gather up a handful of gravel and save the task of differentiating these tiny beauties for a rainy day, the comfort of an armchair and the aid of a magnifying glass. 

San Pedro olive shell specimens in jar and an illustration

The Giant Rock Scallop (Hinnites giganteus) life cycle is described in some detail, to explain to readers the stark distinction in the forms in which they may find it – small and light colored when found from its free-swimming stage, large rough and misshapen if one finds and older specimen that had already cemented to a rock. In either case, the specimen is distinguishable by the characteristic purple stain on its hinge, seen here in the specimen rather than the illustration. Hulda herself noted the value of color photographs, and mentions in her introduction how she exaggerates some aspects of the illustrations in order to aid in identification of subtle characteristics.  

Giant rock scallop specimens and illustration

Hulda’s illustrative and descriptive styles were carefully attended to in the 1992 republishing of her book. A collaboration with the Waddell Creek Association, the original book was expanded to reflect the broader Monterey Bay Region. Several new drawings were made by Amey Mathews, the granddaughter of longtime board members/volunteers Pat and Kirk Smith. A high school student taking college level botanical illustration classes, Amey went on to study art at Stanford. A yoga teacher today, she relies on some of the same artistic skills that governed her earlier practice: observation, metaphor, and creativity. Additional descriptions, and a list of additional resources were provided by longtime Museum community member and research associate Frank Perry.

Perry has always been a great admirer of Hulda Hoover McLean. An accomplished naturalist himself, Perry admired the breadth of McLean’s knowledge of the natural world, from insects to birds, from mammals to malacology. McLean grew up roaming the family property that is now the Rancho del Oso portion of Big Basin State Park. The transfer of those lands to the state park system are largely due to her desire to see the beauty of its flora and fauna preserved for the public and posterity. “If there was a ‘Santa Cruz Naturalists Hall of Fame’” Perry says,”she would be in it.”

Perry is also a lifelong admirer of seashells – beginning childhood collections and continuing on into his work as an adult. As a paleontologist, he finds that broken shells often have more interesting stories to tell, from how they were broken and by whom, to how long the shell was empty and who else might have been using it as habitat. Perry’s ability to identify mollusk species has also come in handy for local archaeology. Faced with little information on the daily lives of the lime workers who lived at what is now UCSC, Perry’s identification of abandoned shell fragments helps us understand their diet. 

Indeed, the study of shells contributes broadly to our understanding of the world, from a greater understanding of the consequences of ocean acidification to the broadening of possibilities for human architecture and more. Pairing their versatile scientific contributions with amateur collections that, in McLean’s words, represent a “lifetime investment in beauty”, it is easy to see how shells are as good as gold.

Collections Close-Up: On Kelp and Conservation

Watch this month’s presentation about the Collections Close-Up here. Members are invited to join us for these monthly extensions of the blog — become a Member today!

From glittering blues to shimmering silvers, the ocean punctuates the visual landscape of all who are fortunate to spend time along the Monterey Bay. Yet many of the beauties of the bay are elusive for terrestrial animals such as ourselves. Nonetheless, they can be just as dear to us as our redwood forests. Even now we find ways to connect to them – whether live streaming the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s kelp forest exhibit or exploring tide pools when beach open hours coincide with low tides. 

This month, we’re connecting to the museum’s own oceanic treasures, with a dive into our herbarium. Pressed onto paper and accompanied by handwritten collection notes, our collections of marine algae specimens are as beautiful as they are significant in tracking the changes in the bay. For while these specimens have been safely preserved in the Museum’s herbarium for decades, a different kind of preservation campaign is being waged in the ocean outside our doors. And it centers on kelp.

Sample of Macrocystis integrifolia

Kelp is the common term for large brown algae in the genus Laminariales. The bigger species in this genus form forest-like canopies in the lower intertidal and upper subtidal ocean floor. One such species is preserved in our collections: Macrocystis integrifolia. In contrast to the roughly 11×17” paper on which pieces of it are mounted, this organism can grow up to 20 feet long. Also called small perennial kelp, it’s scientific name is describes salient features: “macrocystis” is Greek for large bladder, in reference to the gas-filled floats called pneumatocysts that support the leaf-like blades which inspire the species name – “integrifolia” is Latin for “with entire leaves.” At their base, structures called holdfasts attach the algae to rocky surfaces. The holdfasts of M. integrifolia are flatter and branch differently than its more prominent relative, M. pyrifera or giant kelp, although some authorities consider them the same species. 

Kelp live in cool, nutrient rich waters where they sustain an immense diversity of life. As both food source and habitat, they support fish like rockfish, invertebrates like abalone, and mammals like sea otters. Humans, of course, interact with kelp forests as well. For thousands of years people have harvested kelp for food, and it is still a common ingredient in many surprising things. More recently it also has been used in manufacturing and medicine. And for several decades, we’ve looked at it for scientific monitoring. Lately, kelp has signaled some alarming changes.

Sample of Macrocystis integrifolia

“Marine dustbowl” is the term used by Mike Esgro to describe the scale and impact of the devastation of kelp forests on California’s north coast in particular. And Esgro would know: he is the marine ecosystems program manager and agency tribal liaison for California’s Ocean Protection Council. Keeping one foot in the world of research and another in conversations with tribal members, divers, fisherman and others, Esgro and his colleagues strive to ensure that the decisions made by the state of California to protect its coast and oceans are informed by science.

And we are in need of both good decisions and good news, because California’s kelp forests are being destroyed by what Esgro and others have described as the perfect storm of factors. “Any one of these things would have been bad, but to have them all together was just a disaster”, says Esgro. In 2014, a massive marine heatwave nicknamed “the Blob” warmed up California’s coast and stubbornly persisted through 2016, boosted by a strong El Niño. Among other problems related to these unusual temperatures, kelp has a harder time growing in warm water, which contains fewer nutrients. It is also thought that warm water played a role in the spread sea star wasting syndrome, which led to massive die-offs of sea star populations starting in 2013/2014. The sickness has been particularly hard on sunflower stars, a many-armed sea star that is a key predator for purple urchins. These spiny creatures, who once grazed fast-growing kelp forests in equilibrium, saw a huge population rise as their predators declined due to wasting sickness. Today, these urchins make headlines as the destroyer of these forests upon which they feed. 

Of course, ecological stories are always made by multiple actors, and an in-depth discussion can be found in the Great Farallones Marine Sanctuary Bull Kelp Recovery Plan. And while the north coast bull kelp forests have seen a more than 90 percent reduction in their populations, similar problems face the giant kelp dominated ecosystem of southern and central California. The same goes for M. integrifolia, which has a similar ecological role and can often be found alongside its predominant relative. 

Sample of Macrocystis integrifolia

As a longtime diver and lifelong ocean lover, Esgro is more than scientifically appalled by this situation. He is also heartbroken. Esgro believes an emotional connection is innate to all Californians, whatever form it takes, from surfing to fishing to sea glass collecting. This connection facilitates the work of getting people to care about ocean conservation. For those people who do care, he emphasizes a few crucial actions. 

The ways to get involved are as diverse as the ways that people connect to the ocean. Esgro highlights the importance of voting. He does not get to do his job, from promoting solutions to the kelp forest crisis to protecting our coast beyond those forests, if we do not have elected officials who care about the environment. He also emphasizes that it is important to recognize that this is a climate problem, and people need to find ways that they can meaningfully engage with it, both in their personal habits and in how they choose to support the larger systems in our society that contribute to climate change. You can also connect with organizations like ReefCheck, an important collaborator of the Ocean Protection Council, and join the Museum in celebrating World Ocean Day on June 8. 

Collections Close-Up: Keeping Up With the Past

It has been over a month since the Museum closed for public safety, and the world is full of changes.

For many of us, this means reconfiguring our sense of community in a world of physical distancing and protective barriers. Although it is hard, community is about more than shared physical presence. Among other things, it is also about identity, common values, and a sense of history. For this month’s collections close-up, we invite you to take a closer look into one such history – that of the museum itself. 

A clipping describing the ecology of honeybees
The newsletter outlines the difference between bees in our exhibit

Building on last month’s Close-Up, our commitment to digitization doesn’t stop with our specimens. The story of keeping those things safe and making them accessible is as much about the keepers as it is about the objects themselves. We maintain an archive of documents, flyers, posters, pictures, receipts and records related to the history and happenings of the Museum and its keepers. This includes the forerunner of today’s email: newsletters.

These physical, mailer-style newsletters, spanning decades from the seventies to the late aughts, paint a vivid portrait of daily life at the museum. There are postings for classes and lectures, announcements for exhibits and fundraisers, listings for volunteer activities and kids camps. And, perhaps most exciting to those of us of a collecting mind, recurring lists of specimens and objects accessioned by the museum in a given month. 

Visitor Services Representative Mary Verutti is the Collections Department’s guest star on this project. She is charting a path through the past by investigating the articles and advertisements for details that will resolve inconsistencies and span gaps of knowledge about both the Collections and the Museum itself.

Clipping from when the museum first got a new macintosh
Announcing new Museum technology!

Mary is a big fan of history, and the newsletters don’t disappoint – she feels as if all the when, where, how and why of our Museum are in these pages. As our most veteran employee, she’d be the one to know! They even give glimpses into stories of other local institutions like Santa Cruz Surf Museum, where Mary also works. She especially enjoyed seeing continuities, like the establishment of our docent program, and evolutions, like the transition of our Illustrating Nature exhibit series into today’s Art of Nature.

Name changes like this one can be a confusing part of reading primary documents, as Mary points out. In exploring these pages, one encounters a variety of names including the Seabright Museum, Carnegie Museum, City Museum, Whale Museum, Crafts House, Main Library Museum, Tyrell House – all used to describe our institution and collections in some form. Tracking name changes like this is not so different from keeping up to date on the changes in the scientific names of specimens – both tasks are an important part of maintaining good records. 

These newsletters also attest to broader challenges in the Museum’s history, including difficult economic times. Mary speaks for all us when she says that the Museum community’s response to challenges never ceases to amaze her.

While we work to make all existing newsletter issues available online, we are providing a sneak peek here at some of the newsletters Mary is currently working on. In the spirit of International Museum Day (May 18th), find your favorite and share it with someone who, like Mary, finds the Museum to be an “easy place for a heart to land.” For a more narrative take on our history, check out Frank Perry’s history lecture or explore other posts here in the Collections Close-Up blog. 

A program listing for the Nautical Neighbors series
A program listing for the Nautical Neighbors series

Collections Close-Up: Towards Digital Nests and Online Eggs

Dusting feathers, labeling fossils, freezing foxes. Checking conditions, inventorying subcollections, replacing boxes. Measuring shelves, sorting photos, scanning files. The steady hum of the dehumidifier over the muffled murmurings of distant meetings. Collections work lives at the intersection of the physical and the abstract, where a great deal of our time is devoted to the preservation of our specimens, objects, and artifacts so that they continue to be available for the creation of knowledge.

What then, is collections work when not at the museum?

A critical part of our ongoing efforts is the expansion of access to our collections through the process of digitization. So, on the eve of the shelter in place in order, collections assistant Isabelle West spent hours upon hours scanning as many of our undigitized ornithology catalog cards as she could so that we could continue this important work.

Digitization is the conversion of analog data to digital data. For many of us this is an easy definition. But collections are as diverse as their contents, and each museum must decide if their digitization work focuses on specimens and labels, or extends to field notes, accession records and more.

For us, digitization is twofold: It includes conversion of our foundational records, (catalog records and the accession paperwork that supports our ownership of our cataloged items) while building infrastructure and staff expertise in specimen photography. With the latter unavailable, the former becomes the focus.

Catalog card for two California Murre eggs

Transcribing these cards, which at present focus on eggs and nests, Isabelle gets up close and personal with the ins and outs of decades of record keeping. This is one of her favorite parts about the process – getting to be part of the collaborative conversation that captures as many as three or four voices describing, updating, and inventorying information about this nest, or that clutch of eggs. She enjoys observing trends in collecting, like being able to see that almost all of our eggs were collected between 1880 and the mid 1890’s, or that the majority of the eggs were collected in June.  Happily, her work means we’re headed to a place where museum patrons, researchers, and the wider public can also make observations about our data.

That data is critical to the value of scientific collections; the who-what-when-where details of collecting. A big challenge to creating good records, Isabelle points out, is when there is little to no data, or when what’s there presents puzzles like the red dot stickers that were used to signify that some form of fumigation treatment was applied to the specimen.

And while Isabelle is leading this charge, she’s not alone. Given the hundreds of records, record digitization is incorporated into all collections-related workflows. Recent projects include work by former intern Jordan Bakhtegan, who digitized and inspected specimens in our mollusk collection, and our ongoing ethnographic record digitization and review project led by Dr. Alirio Karina, PhD, whose scholarship interrogates practices of representation in ethnographic museums.

Catalog card for a bent-nosed clam

This process of digitization isn’t new to us – museum staff have undertaken various computerization projects over the years. Two of my favorite 80s-era relics are an IBM keyboard box used as temporary housing for a set of eggs in the teaching collections, and a brittle black binder entitled “Usage of Computers in Museum Collection” – both of which attest to the early interest of museum staff in taking advantage of the digital age. However, various efforts have fallen victim to different kinds of data decay – disks can get corrupted, databases can crash, and data input documents can get misplaced. A critical part of digitization is preservation, and our present commitment to collections stewardship is anchored, in part, on an industry standard collections management database, complete with physical and cloud backups, that unites all of our laboriously created collections data under one (digital) roof.

But stewardship is as much about sharing things as keeping them safe. 

Historically we’ve done this through exhibits, pop ups, research appointments and more. More recently, we’ve added elements like the Laura Hecox Collections Guide or the Naturalist’s Scrapbook. Now that we are more aggressively pursuing digitization, we can also start looking at how to take part in the vibrant global conversation around the data mobilization or use. 

As large scale data aggregators like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio), Vertnet come into their second and third decades, researchers are reflecting not only on the history of digitized collections, but also the ways they are transforming how we ask questions about the world around us. An analysis of the past ten years of scholarship utilizing publicly accessible biodiversity databases richly depicts the triumphs and challenges of the field. Echoing UC Berkeley paleontology professor Charles Marshall on unlocking the value of fossil collections, we are excited for the ways that digitization will not only bring our collections into deeper conversation with the public, but also with the larger pursuit of knowledge.

Collections Close-Up: Fur Seal Fossil Focus

partial cranium and frontal skull region of the ancient pinniped Thalassaleon macnallyae

The Central Coast is packed with pinnipeds for all seasons. From regular sightings of harbor seals and seal lions, to special occasions like elephant seal breeding season, which wraps up at the end of this month. An even more special sight would be northern fur seals, who spend more than 300 days a year out at sea. An even rarer sight would be their extinct ancestors, if it weren’t for your neighborhood natural history museum’s fossil display!

Out from its permanent home in our local paleontology exhibit for a closer look this month, this fragmentary fossil is a partial cranium and frontal skull region of the ancient pinniped Thalassaleon macnallyae. Compare this specimen to modern pinnipeds, including their descendant the northern fur seal.  Thalassaleon means sea lion in Greek, and is the name of an extinct genus of the family otariidae. Otariidae, including fur seals and sea lions, are a group of carnivorous semi-aquatic marine mammals with flippers and visible external ears. Together with Phocidae, the earless or true seals like harbor seals, and Odobenidae, whose only living member is the walrus, and the extinct Desmatophocidae family, these families make up the clade of pinnipeds. 

partial cranium and frontal skull region of the ancient pinniped Thalassaleon macnallyae, with the braincase in the back

This fossilized cranium, which belonged to an immature individual, was collected but not identified from near Soquel Point by teenager Gerald Macy in the late 1930s or early ‘40s. Many fossil hunters have cut their teeth collecting along the Opal Cliffs, and Macy was no exception. In 1939 the local paper described the then 17-year old as “the local authority on paleontology, a position attained by more than five years painstaking search of the rich stratas [of the cliffs]”.

Newspaper clipping regarding Gerald Macy, 17-year-old palentologist

While the cliffs of Capitola have exposed countless fossils for science, they are special for this species: Thalassaleon macnallyae has only been found in exposures of the Purisima formation in Central and Northern California. The first of its kind to be formally described was uncovered in Point Reyes by paleontologist Kathleen MacNally Martin in 1965. As a whole, this species has a geochronologic range of 6.9-5.33 Ma.

As the ancestor of the modern northern fur seal, this specimen represents millions years of life in Santa Cruz. Today its descendants spend most of their time on the open ocean where they feed on a variety of fish and squid. They come ashore to reproduce and molt on rocky or sandy beaches of islands in the eastern North Pacific and Bering Sea, including California’s San Miguel Island and South Farallon Island. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were hunted for their luxurious pelts: their insulating fur boasts 46,500 fibers per square centimeter. Although they are now protected, they face threats from debris entanglement, fisher interactions, and climate change throughout their range. 

Our ancient fur seal specimen’s story doesn’t stop with its own descendants – it also has a role in putting together the puzzle pieces of pinniped evolution. Its measurements, along with those of a variety of other pinniped fossils, were used by paleontologists Robert Boessenecker and Morgan Churchill in 2015 to identify an older species of fur seal – Eotaria crypta, the oldest discovered otariid specimen. 

Boessenecker was looking through pinniped fossils at the Cooper Center in Orange County in 2012 when he spotted a small fur seal jaw whose identification seemed at odds with the age of the rock formation in which it was found. He suspected that the specimen might represent a missing link between otariids and the ancient ancestor of pinnipeds from which they diverged.

To confirm, the paleontologists analyzed more than 115 morphological features from specimens representing more than 23 taxonomic groups, including the star of this month’s Close Up. By preserving fossils like the remains of Thalassaleon macnallyae as well as others, our collections can further our understanding of the history of life on earth. 

We couldn’t do that without the paleontologists who put in the work to study our collections, and we were thrilled to talk to California native Robert Boessenecker about what that process looks like. 

He says that the decision to study a fossil begins with how interesting it is – whether it helps tell a story,  fill a hole in current knowledge or has unusual features or strange preservation. From there it takes a combination of fieldwork, fossil preparation, museum visits, and data collection to understand a fossil’s significance.  

Boessenecker, who teaches at the College of Charleston and blogs about his research, is no stranger to SCMNH. Bobby, as he is often referred to in our records, has been hunting for fossils in Santa Cruz since he himself was a teenager, and has gifted some of his finds to our museum. This kind of collection, he says, is perhaps unique to the field of paleontology – how easy it is for community scientists (e.g. amateur fossil collectors) to make serious contributions to science.  

Stop by this month to check out one such contribution – our fossil fur seal in focus.