.From Fossils To The Future

At 118 years old, The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is still evolving

When an adult mastodon tooth was found at Rio del Mar earlier this year, staff at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History were excited by the sheer novelty of the discovery—and also for how the discovery ignited interest in the community.

The museum celebrated its 118th birthday this past weekend. Over the past years, it has been undergoing an evolution of sorts as its staff works on building community engagement. That includes creating unique programming and exhibits designed to serve its educational mission and ensure inclusivity. It’s a transformation they hope will introduce the museum to new visitors and re-introduce it to those who haven’t been in awhile. 

Felicia Van Stolk, the museum’s executive director, includes herself among those who previously thought of the museum primarily as a place for field trips. She grew up in the county and visited the museum with school, but didn’t remember going other than that before she joined the museum’s education department in 2016.

“There was a really big turning point for the museum [around the time I came on],” Van Stolk said. “I was brought on as part of this intentional kind of refresh of the museum under the direction of then-director Heather Moffat. And the reason there needed to be this refresh is that even though we are 118 years old this year, we’re a relatively new nonprofit. We only became independent in 2009.”

In that year, the city of Santa Cruz cut the museum (the first in the city) from its budget. The nonprofit Santa Cruz Museum Association took over according to Liz Broughton, the museum’s visitors services manager. 

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“We had to really work to overcome the perception that the museum was closing or was closed,” Broughton said. “We had to really transition. Now, seeing the amount of growth we’ve gone through –  it was a journey.” 

While the city no longer owns the museum, it continues to be a great and supportive partner, Broughton added. Going from publicly owned to non-profit meant a loss of guaranteed funding, but it also opened the opportunity for more freedom in choosing supplies and vendors and more autonomy. 

“I think this process really did force us to kind of step back and re-think, ‘how can we do more, think big, dream big?’’ said Broughton.

A Pandemic Pivot

In nearly 15 years since becoming a nonprofit, the museum tripled its staff, added new programming and honed its vision. Then Covid-19 hit. 

“Even though we closed our physical doors, we were able to keep all of our employees,” said Van Stolk. “It really deepened our sense of purpose as a community resource. We aren’t just a building that people can walk around in; we are a resource for people to learn, for people to connect with nature and be inspired to explore even without us.”

According to the American Alliance of Museums, three-quarters of museum directors around the country reported operating incomes fell by an average of 40% during 2020. Half said their total staff size decreased by an average of 29% when compared with pre-pandemic levels. Museums and cultural institutions around the nation are working hard to bring more visitors in and return to their pre-pandemic attendance levels, which were already dwindling.

The Museum of Natural History is bucking the trend; last year was a record for attendance with more visitors than ever before. 

“We saw a 14% increase year-over-year in visitation,” said Broughton. “That’s a testament to what we are doing.”

A National Reckoning

Parallel to the challenges of the pandemic, museums and cultural institutions around the country are in the midst of reckoning with historical injustices, racism and colonialism. 

Some are having deeper conversations around repatriation—essentially, relinquishing control of artifacts that may have been looted or taken by unjust means. Some are looking at the context of how artifacts and exhibits are displayed and updating outdated and sometimes inaccurate information. 

The California Association of Museums, a nonprofit that works with the state’s museums, has made an equity action plan key to its efforts, stating, “as educational institutions that serve the public, museums have a vital role to play in helping Californians understand and address racism and inequities within their communities.” 

Even for natural history museums like the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, these changes are encouraging patrons’ engagement with the natural world in a nuanced, modern way. 

That includes updating interpretive signs and descriptions to remove outdated and harmful language. It’s also an opportunity for museum leaders to think carefully about the context of future exhibits.  

Last year, the museum featured one of its first new, in-house curated exhibits in over a decade, Remembering Castle Beach. The exhibit touched on issues like climate change and racism in its telling of the area’s history.

“We were able to really tell the story of the human versus nature interactions,” said Kathleen Aston, the museum’s collections manager. “It was a way to tell a natural history story through cultural elements.”

The museum also partners with the Amah Mutson Tribal Band on a number of projects and programs, including updating terminology, revising existing exhibits and rewriting the museum’s schools programs. That includes new interpretative signs at Neary Lagoon that the museum is helping the city with. 

Bringing in programming for all ages

For many long-time residents, the museum is viewed as a staple of school field trips and has served as a local polling place, but there wasn’t always programming geared toward adults—or at least that was the perception. 

Newer events like the annual Museum of the Macabre, a Halloween-inspired event that takes place at night, are decidedly aimed at adults. Combining ghastly and creepy exhibits with a costume party, thematic cocktails and other activities, the event has become one of the museum’s most popular. 

Now in its seventh year, the Museum of the Macabre will take place over six weeks this year as opposed to just being a one night thing. As part of this year’s celebration, the museum will be featuring an exhibit called Underground: Unearthing Unseen worlds.

The museum also regularly participates in First Friday as well an ongoing series of lectures and presentations focused on the CZU Lightning Fire, nature illustration and journaling workshops.

Taking Stock

In the background of all these efforts is a major project to inventory the museum’s collections to gain a better understanding of what they have, and start bringing out more of it for public view. 

At any given time, just a small percent of the museum’s archives are on display. Aston and her team are cataloging everything and considering possible new exhibits to curate using these existing items. It’s a big undertaking and one that’s long overdue, according to Aston. 

“When I first started here, we could do 2D exhibits and that was about it,” said Broughton.”In the past couple of years, we’ve really upped our game and been able to do more internal curation. Our public programming has increased dramatically; [previously] we only did a handful of events each year. The demand is here in our community.” 


  1. Being new to the area this article has piqued my interest …I will soon be visiting the museum.
    Wondering if there are any volunteer positions to be filled?
    Thank you

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