The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2001, Volume 47, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Reviews

Kyle E. Ciani, Reviews Editor

Inspired by Nature; The San Diego Natural History Museum after 125 Years.

By Iris Engstrand and Anne Bullard, San Diego Natural History Museum, 1999. Photographs, illustrations, index. Ix + 250 pages. $29.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Barry Alan Joyce, Professor of History, University of Delaware, author of the forthcoming book, The Shaping of American Ethnography: The Wilkes Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842.

The San Diego Natural History Museum’s fortunes have included more rises, dips, turns and plunges than the Belmont Park Roller Coaster. The museum traces its beginnings to 1874 when a collection of nature enthusiasts and naturalists of different levels of expertise first gathered under the name San Diego Society of Natural History. Conceived in the Victorian Era of high culture and aspirations, the museum has matured into a world-class institution that is currently riding the crest of sound leadership decisions and a peaking economy. The museum today seems to possess a clear focus (or refocus-more later) on regional biodiversity and community involvement. Indeed, it is this rise and swell in fortune that has enabled Inspired by Nature to see print, commemorating 125 years of the museum’s existence. Why this book was not written in the 1970s is part of the story. It is tempting to label a history of any scientific institution as an “evolutionary” process. Nothing doing here. The century-plus story of the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) is a very un-Darwinesque one. Instead, Engstrand and Bullard’s chronicle provides a history lesson for those currently serving the museum as well as San Diego residents, reminding them not to become complacent with the museum’s current high ride and profile. It has been there before-many times.

The cyclical history of the museum has been characterized by the search for a definitive and agreed-upon identity. This struggle can be seen even in the early years of the society. The original founders and such contributors as George Barnes, Daniel Cleveland, Charles Parry, Oliver Sanford and Charles Orcutt shared a common interest in natural history as well as their personal collections through periodic meetings and correspondence. But each saw the purpose of the society in different ways. These men soon struggled to maintain the initial enthusiasm for the society in the face of competing organizations (an interesting phenomena not analyzed in this book) and the boom/bust atmosphere of late 19th-century San Diego.

As their expectations and membership rose, so did questions of finance and facilities for meeting and housing the growing and eclectic collections. Not until the 1920s were both problems alleviated through the generosity of Ellen Browning Scripps. The late 1920s and early 1930s also saw the conception and partial completion of William Templeton Johnson’s design for the museum building in Balboa Park. Education outreach into city schools, one of the museum’s lasting accomplishments, began in this period under the initial supervision of Carroll Scott. Yet another tradition set in this period was the society’s emphasis on fieldwork in Baja California, an area barely explored by scientists up until that time.

It is ironic that, as the authors point out, the SDNHM suffered much more from the effects of World War II than from the economic crunch of the Great Depression. Whereas the museum benefited during the New Deal from assistance provided by state and federal relief workers, the United States Navy takeover of the museum building for the duration of the war and beyond resulted in damage to the collections, exhibits, and the building itself, not to mention the loss of any momentum the museum had generated during the 1920s and 1930s.

A consistent and noteworthy concern of the museum throughout the twentieth century has been how to preserve endangered regional environment and habitat. The authors do a good job in pointing to the museum’s role in creating Anza-Borrego State Park and Torrey Pines Reserve. This quest intensified in the 1950s as SDNHM focused on Mission Bay and the migrating grey whales.

The roller coaster plunged downward from these singular benchmarks during the next three decades, however, as a series of financial crises, banana republic intrigues, and board squabbles drove the museum down to where, according to the authors, “its very survival appeared in doubt.”(p. 177) Long-range vision and mission, a source of contention and conflict from the beginning, was nearly snuffed out as board members, directors, curators and scientists haggled over what the museum’s focus should be: outreach vs. exhibits, research vs. preservation of collections, world vs. local focus, blockbuster commercial touring exhibits vs. regional themes. The museum’s direction took more turns than a sidewinder, depending on whoever was the latest to step into role of museum messiah in this bleak period. Fortunately, help has arrived and the track laid straight in the past ten years. Stable and responsible leadership has made effective use of new, innovative technology that has enabled the museum to upgrade the quality of its exhibits and facilitate research. An aptly named “full circle strategic plan” has, according to the authors, refocused the museum’s efforts “on the greater San Diego region.” (p.203) A very healthy civic, state and national economy has been a boon to the museums upswing as well. These optimistic developments make the timing appropriate for the publication of the museum’s history.

As shown above, Engstrand and Bullard’s work succeeds in chronicling the 125-year administrative history of the institution through all its slants and slopes. It identifies the shifting strains that hampered attempts to establish a recognizable and congruous identity for the museum. They also do well in pointing out the museum’s longstanding contributions to science and society, particularly in the fields of habitat preservation, education and the museum’s emphasis on exploring and studying the Baja Peninsula. Many San Diegans will want this book because of their personal involvement with the museum. The later chapters are chock full of names of administrators past and present, promotional pictures and fund-raiser group shots of “noteworthy” people affiliated with the museum.

Natural history aficionados will find little to pique their interest, however, for there isn’t a lot of “nature” in this work. Many chapters lock into a pattern of year-by-year, meeting-by-meeting routine of citing accomplishments, goals, and old and new business. Quite possibly this style stems from consulting a narrow range of sources (which are not listed) including board minutes, curricula vitae, and San Diego Union Tribune coverage. Two exceptions prove the rule: There is an attractive color insert section showing a tantalizingly brief sample of the rich and varied museum collections that opens a window into why people are attracted by natural history. The other is an evocative sidebar found near the end of the book, entitled “Why does the Museum Collect Scientific Specimens?” (pp. 212-13), an enlightening piece whose ideas and themes should have permeated the book instead of being boxed within the final chapter. By focusing on the administrative aspects of the museum’s story, Engstrand and Bullard have not captured the essence of what gives a Natural History museum its life. To be sure, there are other nuggets such as San Diego naturalist Frank Stephens posing, not with drink in hand, but with a rifle in tow, kneeling beside two bighorn sheep he had bagged in the Anza-Borrego Desert for the museum’s collections. (p. 48) Unfortunately it may be too laborious for today’s nature enthusiasts to mine such rich ore from the rest of the work.

Scholars interested in this topic will also find the book disappointing. According to the authors, the two mandates of this work were “that it be as complete as possible in providing a broad perspective about the importance of natural history in society, and that it cover the specific role of the San Diego Natural History Museum in promoting public awareness of regional environmental concerns.” The latter goal is sufficiently met; the former is not. The only sustained attempt to place the birth and development of the San Diego Natural History Museum and Society in a broader context of science and culture takes place in a haphazard chapter one. This chapter suffers from amorphous chronology, lack of depth, and factual errors (the Wilkes Expedition concluded in 1842, not 1841; Mr. Israel’s name was Robert, not Ralph); and omissions: Thomas Jefferson, America’s foremost naturalist at the turn of the 18th century; The American Philosophical Society, America’s 18th-century scientific society; the Emory border survey, along with numerous other expeditions that collected specimens in the American west. There is a pronounced preoccupation with the origins and importance of western European science as well. Another problem is that there is no use of the comparative when such a method would enlighten scholars about the significance of San Diego’s foray into Natural Science in the 19th and 20th centuries. Opportunities also abound in this book to explore the vital role played by women from 1875 to the present and the museum’s commitment to educational outreach. Were the problems encountered by the museum typical or atypical of American museums, or even of those in Balboa park? Why did the society begin when it did? Was it Western expansion and development? Darwinism and other philosophies? Economics? Victorian culture? All of the above? And how did its development compare to other museums? What did others in the field think of the museum?

Scientists, nature lovers and historians are curious people by nature. They want to understand the significance of things, “the whys,” the connections, and the life-giving impetus behind what they observe. It is this lack of curiosity that limits the appeal of Inspired by Nature.