The San Diego Natural History Museum is located in Balboa Park and is one of several attractions in the park. Founded in 1874 as the San Diego Society of Natural History--a group of scientists and science enthusiasts intent on organizing and creating an intellectual space for exploring scientific topics--the society continued to evolve and formally opened its first exhibit in 1912. This early organizing led the the San Diego Natural History Museum securing its place as the oldest scientific museum in Southern California. Its primary focus is the natural history of the San Diego region.


  • San Diego Natural History Museum
    San Diego Natural History Museum
  • A view inside the museum.
    A view inside the museum.
  • Museum after completed renovations in 2002.
    Museum after completed renovations in 2002.
  • Exhibit photograph from the early decades of the museum's operation. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Natural History Museum.
    Exhibit photograph from the early decades of the museum's operation. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The San Diego Society of Natural History began as a communal organization of like-minded, scientifically curious individuals who began meeting in 1874. Society members began organizing to take on diverse projects in the San Diego area, ranging from the establishment of a weather monitoring station to petitioning and organizing for the creation of the Torrey Pines State Reserve. These efforts eventually led to the opening of an exhibit in June of 1912--the Society's first such endeavor. At this time, the Society operated out of San Diego's Hotel Cecil, and the exhibit was displayed in one of the hotel's rooms.

The Society bought a vacant building in Balboa Park in 1917 left over from the 1915  Panama-California Exposition. Finally owning sizable space to create a proper museum, the Society formally changed its name to the San Diego Natural History Museum and was able to grow its collections and library holdings. After moving between three buildings in Balboa Park, the museum finally commissioned architect William Templeton Johnson (by now well known in the area for designing other impressive museums) to build them a permanent home. Even with a substantial contribution of 125,000 from Ellen Browning Scripps, the museum failed to raise the full amount needed for the project, due largely to the challenges of the depression era. Thus, only part of the originally planned museum was built before the museum formally opened in 1933, with two of the exterior walls left plain as "temporary" walls to be finished later when the museum finished its expansion. Those temporary walls ended up remaining for nearly 60 years, until a massive 32 million dollar plan was commenced in 1992 that led to massive expansion of the museum. By 2002, the renovation was completed, leaving the San Diego Natural History Museum over twice the size of its previous structure. 

A tumultuous moment in the museum's history came during World War II, when the U.S. Navy conscripted the building for use as a military hospital. The museum was forced to hastily pack up its massive collections, dispersing them throughout 32 locations, while the library relocated to San Diego State College. Meanwhile, the new use of the building required the installation of an elevator to transfer patients from different areas and a nurses' station in-between floors of the museum-turned-infectious-disease-ward. Interestingly, both additions remain today. 

"Museum History." San Diego Natural History Museum. Accessed June 2, 2015. http://www.sdnhm.org/about-us/our-museum/history