Thursday, May 24, 2007

In 30 years, Mesa museum becomes focal point for fossils

[Source: Sarah N. Lynch, Tribune] -- Mesa Southwest Museum was born inside a single room in the old city hall building in 1977. It only had one employee to oversee its exhibits. There were no moving dinosaurs or towering bones of a Tyrannosaurus bataar in the lobby. But despite its humble beginnings, the institution at 53 N. Macdonald has evolved from a one-room exhibit into one of the premier natural history research museums in Arizona. It houses fossils that have made scientific history. It helped Mesa acquire the mound of a Hohokam temple that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. And while budget cuts forced the museum to cut its staff in half, it has managed to survive, with its most recent success involving the excavation of one of the most complete Rhynchotherium skeletons ever found. This Friday, the museum will celebrate its 30th anniversary. The public is invited to celebrate and reflect on the institution’s history.

“It’s been tremendous,” said Jerry Howard, the curator of anthropology. “We’ve gone from what was a small, local museum before the (2000) expansion to a major museum. We’ve doubled our space.... As a result, our visitation has quadrupled.” The museum was the brainchild of the Mesa Historical and Archaeological Society, a group that wanted to create a space to honor Mesa’s history, Howard said. The city was excited by the prospect of a local museum and agreed to sponsor it. Over time, it acquired more of the city hall building as other departments left seeking larger quarters. Since its inception, it has undergone two expansions, including a $4.5 million addition in 2000. The museum was similar to others in neighboring cities, except for one thing — it always emphasized the importance of archaeology, which allowed it to evolve into a natural history research museum, said Robert McCord, the curator of paleontology. “Most cities have pure historical museums, and I think that was a little unusual,” he said. “In the early years, (archaeology) was our mission and that allowed us a certain flexibility. We had a drive to be bigger and try exhibits on a wide array of topics.” But what changed the museum’s focus to natural history was the addition of two popular exhibits.

[Note: To read the full article, click here. Photo source: Leigh Shelle Robertus, Tribune.]