Museum Monday: The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

Dwight Brooks ship models and more displays inside the main exhibit hall of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum has a mission to preserve and celebrate over 13,000 years of human interaction with the ocean. It’s quite the scope, narrowed by a focus on the local coastal region, the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands. The museum showcases centuries of interaction between human inhabitants and the rich coastal habitat, from the Chumash and their expert use of natural resources, through 19th-century seafaring, to today’s surfers, divers and beach-goers. 

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is located at the bustling Santa Barbara Water Waterfront Center, so it’s easy to combine a visit with dining at nearby restaurants and strolling around the harbor. The elegant two-story building housing the museum, formerly the Naval Reserve Building, is steps from the water. With close to 8,000 square feet of exhibit space filled to the brim with diverse artifacts (plus docking spaces for three historic vessels), this is one of the most intriguing museums in Santa Barbara. Allow an hour or so for a visit, and bring the kids because the museum has interactive exhibits for all ages, including a Children’s Gallery. 

Highlights of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is comprehensive yet compact. You get an overview of the entire space from the entranceway, and can browse the whole collection in a reasonable timeframe. Visitors with a deep interest in maritime subjects could spend a happy few hours reading all the signage and admiring every item, from tiny hand-crafted model boats to the working periscope on the second floor. For a more casual museum experience, focus on the following highlights.

JIM, a large deep water diving suit illuminated and on display at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

The JIM Suit

The JIM Deep Sea Dive Suit is the Maritime Museum’s greeter, looming at the entrance and looking like a giant cartoon character. This atmospheric diving suit, developed in the late 1960s, was a revolutionary piece of equipment for divers. JIM is a nod to Santa Barbara as the birthplace of deepwater diving technology. It allowed for safe dives up to 2,000 feet, featured articulating arms and legs, and was pressurized like a submarine. 

Chumash Tomol Plank Canoes

The oldest items in the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum collection are Chumash artifacts. The Chumash exhibits celebrate the Native maritime culture spanning the mainland and Channel Islands. Learn some amazing facts, including that the oldest human remains ever found in the Western Hemisphere were on Santa Rosa Island. They’re an estimated 13,000 years old. 

A display cabinet at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum with a model Chumash tomol plank canoe and other Chumash tools and artifacts

One of the most unique achievements of the Chumash is the invention of the tomol, or plank canoe. The design includes waterproofing with natural asphaltum from local deposits, and was traditionally used for fishing, cross-channel transport and trade. The tomol can carry over 2,000 pounds of cargo, and was vital to the Chumash’s seafaring culture. You can see full-size and model tomol replicas in the museum. Additional exhibits display further innovations utilizing asphaltum (a.k.a. beach tar). The Chumash used it to turn baskets into water bottles, to craft bird-bone whistles, and as an adhesive to secure blades to knife handles. 

Point Conception Light Station Lens

As the striking, colossal centerpiece of the museum, the Point Conception Light Station Lens (technically its First Order Fresnel Lens) is literally unmissable. At 18 feet tall, not including its base, the lens comprises 624 gleaming glass prisms in an arrangement that’s both an engineering marvel and dazzling work of art. The lens was transported to the museum in 2013 from Point Conception Light Station 50 miles away. 

A view from the underside of the Point Conception Lighthouse lens on display at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

Before retirement, the lens was in use from 1856 to 1999, shining its beam 25 miles into the ocean. One of the earliest lighthouses in California, Point Conception illuminated an especially turbulent section of the Santa Barbara Channel that previously claimed hundreds of shipwrecks. The Paris-built lens represents one of the most important technological advancements of the 19th century. The museum calls it “arguably the most important maritime artifact along the Santa Barbara Channel.”

Dwight Brooks Ship Models

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum displays 32 boat and ship models created in the 1980s and 1990s by Dwight Brooks, an exceptionally skilled modeler. The scale models, all fully operational and radio-controlled, are on display throughout the museum. Several have working interior functions such as lighting and sound systems. They’re impressive and delightful. 

Also see more model boats of many shapes, sizes and materials on display. Examples include miniature models of dugout canoes from diverse regions including Guatemala and the Caribbean, a traditional Alaskan kayak and a cormorant fishing boat from China.

Conning Tower and Periscope

On the second floor of the museum, step inside a genuine 1970s conning tower, the watertight compartment of a submarine that housed key communication and navigation controls. This includes a working periscope which is rigged through the museum roof to enable 360-degree exterior views. Rotate the periscope to see boats in the harbor, Stearns Wharf and nearby Leadbetter Beach. 

Goleta’s Cannons

A local jogger made a curious discovery on Goleta Beach in 1981: five historic iron cannons encrusted in sand and rock. A winter storm exposed the antiques after hundreds of years of obscurity. UCSB archaeology experts say the canons were probably made in Britain and possibly date to the 17th or 18th centuries, but their origins remain mysterious. An interactive display featuring the Goleta cannons offers an overview of the discovery. 

Vintage surfboards line the upper level of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

More to See at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

As one of the best museums in Santa Barbara, the Maritime Museum covers an impressively broad scope of topics. Additional features to learn about include the local surf culture, the turn-of-the-century waterfront scene, the age of whale and fur hunting, and the history of oil extraction in the channel. Exhibits about shipwrecks, the Whales are Superheroes exhibit, an Olympic racing shell, a torpedo and a replica of an early bi-plane are also attention-grabbers. 

Kids visiting the museum love the Children’s Gallery. It’s a dedicated space with a hanging felt kelp forest where they can get tangled up like sea otters. The gallery also includes a beautiful seascape mosaic and kid-size sailboat with working sails and rigging. Ask for a kids’ scavenger hunt at check-in – complete the hunt and they’ll get to pick a prize from a treasure chest. All ages enjoy the Sport Fishing Simulator. Sit on a replica fishing boat deck, choose your imaginary fishing expedition from the screen, and experience the life-like tension in your rod and reel as you work hard to land that big fish. 

On your way out of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, browse the excellent gift shop, and then head up to the roof of the building. Here you’ll find the Outdoors Santa Barbara Visitor Center, which has tons of information about Channel Islands National Park, the City of Santa Barbara, Los Padres National Forest and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Plus, the views are amazing. 


Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

113 Harbor Way, Suite 190

Santa Barbara, CA 93109

(805) 962-8404

Looking for more of the best museums in Santa Barbara? Check out “Museum Monday: MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, Santa Barbara.

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