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TRAVEL TALES : THE MUSEUMS OF SANTA BARBARA.

Byline: Ana Young Daily News Staff Writer

Santa Barbara normally conjures up images of shop 'n' stroll. But for more heady pursuits, the museums of what has been called ``The American Riviera'' serve up vignettes of Chumash Indian families, 19th-century adobes, French impressionist and sassy '90s multimedia art.

Santa Barbara Historical Museum

An original gas lamp fronts the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, a contrast of dark-beamed ceilings, white walls and red terra cotta Mexican tile that typify one of the architectural styles popular among the region's settlers - the Chumash Indians, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Americans and the Chinese.

A statue of St. Barbara stands among centuries-old paintings and furniture, and there are Victorian textiles and dolls, 19th-century photographs and an exquisite ornate Chinese shrine. You can't miss the facade of a wooden mountain cabin complete with campfire and horse paraphernalia.

An unadorned fountain centers the idyllic tree-shaded courtyard, around which are the 1817 Casa Covarrubias - once that prominent family's home - and the 1836 Historic Adobe. (Sorry, they're not open to the public.) The Gledhill Library aids the serious researcher with 30,000 documents.

The quality of Santa Barbara's museums impressed Barbara Zigli, 43, visiting from Washington, D.C. ``This one ... gives you a feel for the way it must have been back when it was first a Spanish and then a Mexican city,'' she said.

Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum

A short walk and several centuries past all this is the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum. (Hint: Park behind the historical museum for both visits.) This venue is just plain fun. Spacious rooms display visual art billed as ``the freshest, the newest, the most innovative, the most provocative'' - plus the totally weird.

Amid other nondescript wonders are an old black shoe dripping water into a small pool; hanging bleach bottles; a 1977 drawing of a flying saucer; and a 1996 oil painting of a room thick with greenery that looks suspiciously like marijuana plants, set in perfect tropical splendor - with dripping walls.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art

For the eclectic scene, step up to the Italian classical building of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. A fourth-century Roman atrium welcomes you to a world of antiquities that include an 18th-century gilt copper statue of a Tibetan goddess; French impressionist paintings; and displays of Kosode, the forerunner of the modern kimono, in luxurious muted purples, blues and browns. Lording over it all is a complete set of 19th-century Japanese black-lacquer armor.

If you have a mystical bent, don't miss the Kalacakra (``Wheel of Time'') sand mandala, a cosmic diagram symbolizing the mind and body of Buddha.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

You can devote an afternoon to the 11-acre Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, set among oaks and sycamores next to Mission Creek - whenever you tear yourself away from its immediate neighbor, Mission Santa Barbara.

At the museum entrance is a replica of a 72-foot-long blue whale skeleton. Rooms of dioramas - displays of wildlife in simulated ``microhabitats'' - trace the development, food supply and behavior of insects, birds, reptiles and mammals. Press one of the buttons in the Insect Arena, and it will produce the hiss of the cicada, the shrill call of the katydid or the tweet of the tree cricket.

In the geological section, you learn ``how the uplifting of the earth through time has created the familiar forms of these (nearby) hills,'' as armchair naturalist Richard Van Healey, 42, of Ojai puts it.

Planetarium shows and computer games in the Astronomy Center take you on your own space exploration. And if your Earth weight depresses you, scales recalculate your poundage on the Moon and several planets.

``I think it has educated us a lot,'' said Jennifer Watts, 37, of Valencia after visiting this learning center and lovely Rocky Nook Park nearby with her family. ``And I think we all feel pretty peaceful.''

Waves of art and history

Santa Barbara's museums are clustered near the mission and around State Street.

Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 E. De la Guerra St.; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; free, donations accepted. (805) 966-1601.

Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, 653 Paseo Nuevo, upstairs at the Paseo Nuevo mall; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; free. (805) 966-5373.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St.; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (to 9 p.m. Thursdays), noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; admission is $4 adults, $3 seniors, $1.50 ages 6-17 and students with I.D. Children under 6 free. Thursdays and the first Sunday of the month free for all. (805) 963-4364.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2559 Puesta del Sol Road; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays and holidays; admission is $5 adults, $4 teens and seniors, $3 children. (805) 682-4711.

Mission Santa Barbara, Los Olivos and Laguna streets; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; admission is $3 adults 16 and over. Children under 16 free. (805) 682-4149.

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos, Box

Photo: (1) Dip into the arts and architecture of the region's many cultures at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

(2) A statue of St. Barbara greets visitors to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

Tina Gerson/Daily News

Box: Waves of art and history (See Text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 28, 1997
Words:925
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