Here be dragons. Also a cacophony of bird calls, a stunning painting of a stinky plant, and everything you always wanted to know about the manticore (part man, part lion, all the rage in 1658) but were too historically uninformed to ask.
These and many other gems are seeing the light of climate-controlled day for the first time in the San Diego Natural History Museum's new permanent exhibition. It is called "Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science," a mouthful of a theme that speaks to the museum's many examples of game-changing scientific contributions made by passionate amateurs.
From the iconic paintings of John James Audubon to Laurence Klauber's creepy jarred rattlesnakes, the exhibition marks the public debut of rare books, art and specimens from the museum's vast research collection. The museum did the digging, and we get the treasures. Here is a user's guide to "the Nat's" world of riches.
No spotlights, please!
Do your eyes deceive you? Nope. In deference to the delicate nature of the objects on display, the interior of the new Eleanor and Jerome Navarra Special Collections Gallery is as cool and dim as an aquarium. Which means valued volumes like the 499-year-old "Garden of Health" are as happy as clams, and visitors will need to go with the flow.
"This is the crux of our challenge. We want to share these things with the public, but we want to protect them," said Margaret "Margi" Dykens, director of the museum's research library and curator of this exhibit. "We have items that are 500 years old, and that is a lot of responsibility. But we felt like it was really important for our guests to see some of these objects that have been behind closed doors for so long."
For proof that great things come to museum-goers who wait, look no further than the case just inside the entrance. That is the home of "Historia Naturae," a guide to the natural world, circa 1635. The book is open to the page featuring one of the first illustrations of a rattlesnake ever published, a drawing so crisply detailed, you can almost see the scales twitching.
The case is also your introduction to Citizen Scientist Laurence Klauber, an SDG&E executive and amateur herpetologist, whose collections of nature-related books and preserved rattlesnakes were donated to the Nat and are displayed throughout the exhibit. He also merits a display case of his own, where you can see one of his field diaries and a copy of 1956's "Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories and Influence on Mankind," the two-volume set Klauber wrote that is still considered the ultimate in rattlesnake studies.
There is no need to encourage you to look out for the jarred rattlesnake specimens. They'll find you.
Believe your eyes
Puffins. Frogs. Skunk cabbage. The flora and fauna may change, but the beauty of the nature-inspired art on display is constant and consistently staggering.
The big-ticket item is the rare "double elephant folio" version of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," which — at 50 inches long — is big enough to allow for life-sized versions of Audubon's indelible illustrations of our country's every winged thing, all done in brilliant, jewel-like color.
The book is in a climate-controlled case, but you can examine every last feather in detail courtesy of the interactive touch-screen nearby. The screen allows you to zoom in on every illustration, and each one is accompanied by a modern-day photo of the real bird. Amuse yourself and your fellow gallery visitors by playing recorded samples of bird calls, from the sweet peeping of the tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet to the morose moo-ing of the Atlantic puffin.
Got room for more eye-candy? Here's hoping, because you do not want to miss the illustrations accompanying 1758's "The Natural History of Frogs" and 1789's "Shells of the Imperial Museum of Vienna," which are so luminous they will make your heart hurt. And speaking of luminous, save a few "ah's" for the A.R. Valentien art collection, which spotlights Valentien's exquisitely detailed paintings of the native plants of California. Even the skunk cabbage looks Louvre-worthy.
You don't need a kid on the family payroll to appreciate the jackpot that is the "Dragon's Den." In addition to its cozy reading nook and collection of books available for hands-on browsing, the upstairs children's area spotlights mind-blowing blasts from our natural-history past.
Behold the 1653 classic, "Natural Histories of Insects, Serpents and Dragons," which is open to a page featuring illustrations of four dragons thought to be roaming the Earth at that time, including a two-legged dragon reportedly captured in Italy. You will also want to peruse "History of Four Footed Beasts and Serpents," which alerts readers to the presence of the manticore, a man-eating beast sporting the body of a lion, the head of a man, three rows of teeth and a tail covered in quills. Last seen in India, just FYI.
Before you return to the modern world, check out the displays devoted to "Citizen Scientists." There, you will find the stories of people like Laurence Huey and Ethel Bailey Higgins. Huey didn't get past eighth grade, but his animal-collecting skills were so impressive, he was the museum's bird and mammal curator from 1923 to 1961. Higgins discovered botany in her late 60s and became the museum's first curator of botany in 1933.
Come for the mythical monsters, stay for the real-life heroes.
"Sometimes kids say, 'Oh, I don't like science,' but maybe you like to write diaries. Maybe you like to paint or draw. Maybe you are a close observer," Dykens said. "These are all the ways you can contribute to science."