Airstream at theNAT

(Updated June 10, 2015)

Earlier this year, the San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) opened its new $9 million dollar, 8 thousand square-foot permanent exhibition, “Coast to Cactus in Southern California,” just in time for Balboa Park’s centennial celebration of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.*  This exhibit features the biodiversity of Southern California and includes an Airstream Bambi trailer made possible by the Hunte family.

DSC_0401 Coast to Cactus Opening

TheNAT is located in San Diego’s historic Balboa Park* and on the north entrance side is a huge Moreton Bay fig tree,* Ficus macrophylla, with sensitive roots that are protected by a chain-link fence, which underscores part of theNat’s mission, “to inspire in all a respect for nature and the environment.”  TheNAT traces is roots to a group of amateur naturalists, who formed the San Diego Society of Natural History in 1874, making this the oldest scientific institution in southern California.

TheNAT’s exhibits* help to further its mission “to promote understanding of the evolution and diversity of southern California and the peninsula of Baja California.”  The southern California region is one of 35 global hot spots having high concentrations of different species.  The unique biodiversity of southern California is explained by theNAT’s president and CEO, Dr. Michael Hager, who said in this KPBS interview* that our topographical features of a cool ocean current, a mountain range that limits desert rainfall (rain shadow effect), and streams that dissect our mesa tops (giving each canyon a unique habitat) play a big role in our biodiversity.

The “Coast to Cactus” exhibit* takes visitors on a journey through the diverse representative habitats of the region ranging from the coastal beaches, urban canyons, riversides, chaparral, valleys, and mountains to the desert, all within a single museum visit. As visitors approach the desert section, they see the Airstream trailer.

DSC_0418 Airstream in Coast to Cactus

A 16-foot Airstream Bambi was positioned next to a large desert-in-bloom mural, and then a desert diorama and “Desert at Night” viewing area were built around it (see theNAT’s time-lapse video*).

DSC_0407 Airstream Bambi

This Airstream trailer has an appearance of a naturalist’s field station with a lantern, canteen, maps and labeled specimens on display, such as “Red Diamond Rattles” from a Red Diamond Rattlesnake, Crotalus ruber.*

DSC_0414 Airstream as field station

DSC_0409 Table & shelves for naturalist

On the other side of the Airstream trailer, visitors can experience what it’s like to camp under the stars when the sun goes down and the desert comes alive during the multimedia mini theater presentation of “Desert at Night.”*  During the presentation, two children in a virtual tent hear and see creatures of the night and share their thoughts and feelings as they converse in both English and Spanish, or as some would say, Spanglish* (a regional way of speaking where two bilingual people move fluidly back and forth between English and Spanish), underscoring theNAT’s appreciation of diversity theme.  (All exhibits are in English and Spanish.)

Elizabeth Salaam, in her San Diego Reader article, “Press 1 for Spanglish,” reports that theNAT’s Exhibition Developer, Erica Kelly said, “We’ve kind of strived to create experiences more than lecturing.”  TheNAT’s attempt to engage English and Spanish speakers at the same time illustrates theNAT’s vision to “provide programs that are timely, user-friendly, and relevant to the real-life needs of the diverse populations of the San Diego-Baja California region today and tomorrow.”

DSC_0420 Desert night show in back

It’s only natural for an Airstream trailer to be included in the desert section of the San Diego Natural History Museum’s “Coast to Cactus” exhibit, because as CEO Michael Hager says, “Camping in the desert [and] Airstream kinda go together.”   It is especially appropriate that an Airstream trailer has a home in this permanent exhibition in San Diego because its iconic, aerodynamic design using monocoque aircraft technology was pioneered by Hawley Bowlus,* who supervised the construction of the  Spirit of St. Louis in San Diego in 1927 and developed the first riveted aluminum trailer, the Road Chief, in 1934.

Michael Hager also says that he likes to think of theNAT as “the visitors center for the region,” which encourages people to go out in nature and explore, have more questions, and then come back to learn more.

And when they are out there, I’m sure Airstream hopes they will have a riveting experience!*

DSC_0016 Camping in the desert & Airstream go together

*This is a link to a YouTube video.


  1. Bill D. says

    Author’s field notes:

    Two years ago, I covered the story of another Airstream trailer at another wonderful San Diego Museum when StoryCorps brought their Airstream MobileBooth to the USS Midway Museum to record veterans’ stories (“StoryCorps Airstream in San Diego“).

    Currently, I am a docent at another interesting San Diego museum and, while attending the Docent League Spring Lunch Meeting at theNAT on May 18th, I got to see their “Coast to Cactus” exhibition and finally see how the Airstream was utilized in this setting. As you can tell from the above article, I was delighted. And I am very proud to be a member of theNAT!

    I was impressed with the richness of their exhibitions and resources, such as their Shenkman Memorial Video Library. This library has more than 500 short-form, under 3-minute videos featuring San Diego region’s animals, plants, ecology, and geology, which are called Nature Bytes (and available online) created by Henry Shenkman, a San Diego Natural History Museum Volunteer of 20 years, who passed away October 2, 2014.

    I was pleased to discover these short videos, which will help illustrate some of my articles, such as “Desert Coyotes.”

    Thank you Henry Shenkman and San Diego Natural History Museum!