Objects with Stories: A Funky Fish

Monterey County's marine exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915.

Monterey County's marine exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915.

Female cabezon?

Female cabezon?

A view of Monterey County's exhibit at the 1915 PPIE.

A view of Monterey County's exhibit at the 1915 PPIE.

This is the latest installment in a series that highlights some of our objects and shares some of their stories. Today’s story is about a funky fish that’s on display through the end of this year. Apart from its obvious personality, what earned this specimen a place on exhibit? 
Its history did. 


Let’s start with a little science. The fish appears to be a cabezon, which — as its Spanish-origin name suggests — has a very large head in proportion to its body. The preserved specimen has been painted a mottled green. If it were still alive, the green color would suggest it’s a female. We’ll go with that. 


A cabezon can live up to 20 years. It’s been at least 100 years since this specimen last swam through Monterey Bay’s kelp beds. She’s currently on display as part of our special exhibit, “Monterey County at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE).” 


Monterey sponsored an extensive marine exhibit at the PPIE, but it was not an aquarium. None of the specimens was alive. The exhibit was prepared by a local curio store owner, and a 1915 letter to the Monterey American described it as “J.K. Oliver’s collection of sea beasts and a litany of favorites from our fisheries. It also arrests the attention of all who pass by, and deserves much admiration and commendation.” 

Postcard of the museum in the 1930s.

Postcard of the museum in the 1930s.


After the close of the World’s Fair, the marine exhibits were dismantled and returned to Monterey. At least two of the marine cases appear to have ended up here at the Museum.
This Museum postcard documents their display in the main gallery below the mezzanine. A careful look reveals that other exhibits were not yet fully mounted on the walls, suggesting the postcard dates to 1933, when our “new” building was completed and opened.

From a news clipping it appears the Museum’s Scientific Director, Dr. Harold Heath, altered the exhibits somewhat, so they represented only Monterey Bay specimens when displayed in the 1930s. That doesn’t do much to explain the presence of a conch in the case, however. Heath was a professor at Hopkins Marine Station until 1933, and he continued with the museum until 1947. 


After several decades on display, the marine exhibits were dismantled. Hence, our collection of assorted fish specimens and shells without any further known provenance. Yet in the days before the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened, these exhibits helped inspire future marine biologists to explore beneath the surface of the ocean. Were you one of them?