Few things scream Halloween quite like eyeballs in a jar. In a twist on the classic, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is currently displaying a baseball-sized whale eye in a jar. It sits among other bottled curiosities as part of the museum’s seasonal spooky alter-ego, the Museum of the Macabre.
For the sixth annual Halloween setup, the Museum of Natural History invites visitors to plunge into all things weird and watery. The new exhibit, “Maritime Mysteries and Monsters,” spotlights humanity’s long, complicated relationship with the ocean.
“Humans have really only explored 20% of the ocean, and there’s this sense of alienness, vastness,” says Liz Broughton, the visitor experience manager for the museum. “There’s a lot of fear inherently tied to that, which is where you get things like sea monster myths.”
Often, real creatures from the deep fueled the lore. “Sea serpents, for example, were often derived from sightings of oarfish or ribbonfish,” says Broughton.
The exhibit includes one such local sea monster: a rare deep-sea tapertail ribbonfish caught by a fisherman in Monterey Bay in 1938. The original fish, several feet long and whispy-thin, went to the Smithsonian for preservation, but the national museum gifted Santa Cruz an identical cast in return.
The ribbonfish was on display at the museum for decades before going into storage in 2016. After a recent refurbishment, it’s back on display in a new case.
The museum partnered with organizations around Monterey Bay to bring new collections and interactive experiences to the exhibit. Many of the specimens are on loan from the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, whose collections date back to the late 1800s. Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and UCSC research labs provided others.
An enormous atmospheric dive suit hangs from the ceiling, next to jars of fish with neon skeletons and early ocean exploration instrumentation. A cannonball and brightly colored parrot welcome visitors to a section about pirates in Monterey Bay. And an interactive sound booth from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute plays ocean sounds that range from orcas and sea lions to noise pollution from ships.
The noise pollution, like a few other parts of the exhibit, reminds visitors of our impacts on the ocean.
“We definitely touch on humans as monsters themselves,” says Broughton. “From pollution to climate change to overfishing—all of which are deeply tied to this Monterey Bay.”
Kiersten Elzy-Loving, a longtime museum patron who now works as its development and community partnerships manager, hopes the exhibit inspires people to learn more about the resource “right outside the door of the museum—the great blue beyond.”
“The ocean is our home, and this incredible resource holds so much for us to still learn about life on planet Earth. We’ve just, for lack of a better term, scratched—or splashed—the surface,” she says.
Elzy-Loving sees the museum as a community resource, there to support anyone interested in learning. The experience, she says, should be multidimensional. The museum is moving towards those goals with more online programming and community events outside normal hours, such as school talks and First Fridays.
“Maritime Mysteries and Monsters” is also the second recent exhibit curated entirely in-house by museum staff, as opposed to exhibits created outside the museum. The staff plan to continue designing in-house.
“That is our ambitious goal,” says Broughton, noting that visitors seem to appreciate the experience.
“It’s definitely been a many, many months-long process,” says Broughton. “It turned into a much bigger, more ambitious exhibit than we originally anticipated, but a lot of that was driven by the fact that these partner organizations were so generous, and we were able to tell interesting stories with a lot of these objects.”
Since 2016, the museum has set up a one-day Halloween party. But unlike the Museum of the Macabre events of years past, this exhibit will be on display from now until November 6.
“Last year, it took so long to put it together, but people only got to see it for three hours, which was kind of a bummer,” says Broughton.
The staff will still expand the exhibit for the museum’s party on October 29, moving outdoors to accommodate more people.
“There’ll be a lot of partner organizations tabling. There’s music, drinks, more of a party atmosphere,” says Broughton. “And the decorations will be heightened significantly the night of the party.”
Whether that means more whale eyeballs remains to be seen.
“Maritime Mysteries and Monsters” runs through Nov. 6 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, 1305 E. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. The museum will host its annual Halloween party, “Museum of the Macabre,” from 6-9pm on Saturday, Oct. 29. The event is 21 and over only, admission includes one free drink. There will be a costume contest, treats and a screening of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” $25; $15/members. santacruzmuseum.org.