Say Hello to the Norris Center

UCSC's Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History opens its doors Nov. 12-13 for a meet-and-greet with the community and fundraising event.

by Allison Titus

Nov. 3, 2016—Not many jobs’ daily duties include dusting a stuffed burrowing owl, shuttling a white-tailed deer skeleton named Phred across the UCSC campus, carefully pasting a Big Leaf Maple leaf larger than a basketball to a piece of herbarium paper, or inspecting a glass drawer full of perfectly preserved, jewel-like blue beetles for damage. Then again, not many places are like the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History, one of UCSC’s not-so-hidden gems. It’s hard to describe exactly what the Norris Center is, only because it does so much. “It’s a museum,” one might say upon seeing the taxidermied albatross hanging from the ceiling. “It’s a classroom,” someone else might say, observing the books that cover an entire wall of the center. The Norris Center is both of these things, and so much more. Coming soon, on November 12 and 13, Santa Cruzans will have their chance to decide what their definition of the Norris Center, and natural history, is.

The history and foundation of the Norris Center—where I worked during my senior year as an Assistant Curator—help explain its many different roles on the UCSC campus. The center is named after legendary UCSC professor Ken Norris. Not only did Dr. Norris help establish the UC Natural Reserve system, make significant marine biology contributions through his research on cetaceans, and help found the Long Marine Lab, he also established natural history education at UCSC. He started a class called Natural History Field Quarter that has been turning UCSC students into naturalists and scientists for 44 years. The Norris Center strives to continue Dr. Norris’ dream of inspiring people to explore the natural world, and provides a home base from which to do so.

One of the primary functions of the Norris Center is to house a vast collection of preserved plants and animals, or “specimens”. In this way, the Norris Center almost acts as a museum, except that most of the specimens are not on display, but instead are carefully stored in heavy, fire-proof cabinets. The collection of over 130,000 plants, fungi, lichens, marine algae, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and skeletons is used by UCSC teachers, students, researchers and community members.

However, the Norris Center does a whole lot more besides house a library of preserved flora and fauna. Many classes, up to seven or eight per quarter, utilize the collection for special classes and labs, observing plant and animal characteristics up close that are often only seen in the wild. The Norris Center also hosts several interns each quarter that work on a variety of projects that range from mycology (the study of fungus) to outdoor education. Graduate students conduct research on the insect collection. Students work on senior projects funded by the Norris Center, and a flourishing Natural History Club meets once a week around campus to learn, explore and enjoy local plants and animals together. Members of the California Native Plant society work with the Herbarium (or plant collection) every Thursday morning. Finally, the Norris Center organizes a variety of natural history-themed events throughout the year that are open to the public.

One such event is coming soon: the Norris Center’s open house, a time when the entire collection is out of the drawers and into the world for anyone and everyone to enjoy. The theme of this year’s open house celebrates the interdisciplinary nature of the Norris Center and the practice of natural history. Cross-Pollination: The Art and Science of Natural History will be held at the new Hay Barn on November 12 and 13. Art by renowned local artist Maryjo Koch will be on display to accompany the entire collection, most notably Randall Morgan’s insect collection.

The Norris Center hosts events like the upcoming Open House throughout the year, and it is also open to visitors during the week. Scientists, naturalists, artists, writers, teachers and students alike are welcome to drop in at any time to use the library, ask a question about a local natural phenomenon, or sit on the comfy couches. The Norris Center simply mirrors the complexity of its subject: natural history. It’s a space, and a practice, where anyone can find their niche.

Cross-Pollination: The Art and Science of Local Natural History, is Saturday, Nov. 12, 10am-5pm; and Sunday, Nov. 13, 10am-3pm, at the Hay Barn near UCSC Entrance.

You can visit the Norris Center, which is found on Science Hill on the UCSC Campus, Mondays-Thursdays 10am-4pm (Fall Quarter 2016 hours; call ahead). 831.459.4763.