“As I grew up I was fervently desirous of becoming acquainted with Nature.”
-John James Audubon
There are few books I have seen as spellbinding as John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Each feathered specimen hand painted in exquisite detail, this book continues to be the gold standard for nature enthusiasts the world over. Witnessing the Elephant-folio edition is an unforgettable experience to say the least and now I have had the distinct honor of seeing two of them.
The natural history behemoth rightfully acts as the centerfold for the newest permanent exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM), “Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science.” Replacing the research library previously closed to the public, this instillation provides an impressive hat-tip to extraordinary naturalists both past and present. In the true spirit of citizen science, the SDNHM brought out some of it’s most rare book collections for all to take part in. The display highlights both local and more remote individuals who played significant roles in what we know today about everything from plants to snakes, shells to birds, and all the life branches in between.
I especially liked the inclusion of lady naturalists like Ethel Bailey Higgins, a seemingly salty photographer and botanist who worked for the museum until she was well into her 90s. During her years as curator of the botany department she grew the collections from 6,000 to 46,000 specimens! To this day, her work was paramount to the success of the museum.
The exhibit uses technology unlike anywhere I have ever seen. With several touch screens and superb digital renderings, guests are able to interact with books and artifacts hundreds of years old. They have several handmade Victorian microscope slides that give viewers a unique sense of both the artistry and meticulous detail that was paid by some of the greatest minds of the time.
Perhaps the most powerful portion of the display lies in the advertisement of how museum visitors can continue the legacy of these great naturalists. Participating in citizen science platforms such as iNaturalist and the Audubon Christmas Bird Count all are able to contribute to what we know about the natural world.
“Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People” is as inspiring as it is informative. Needless to say, I have been back five times in the past month and everyone should check it out next time they are in San Diego. Happy Science-ing!