Obviously I have published a few posts off the back of my time in Mexico and will have some more, but first of all I want to deal with the ‘desert museum’ of the title. I owe them rather a debt, not least because I was staying in the house of the museum director Arturo Gonzales, for most of the time I was there, but also because I had not actually heard of the place before I arrived and frankly it is a great museum that clearly deserves more attention than it has been getting.
The museum is on the outskirts of the city of Saltillo which is the captial of the state of Coahuila in North Central-ish Mexico. It is effectively the state museum of natural history, though of course its name is taken from its location and the dominant ecosystem of the state. It covers more than just basic natural history though with some exhibits that can only be described as based in anthropology, archaeology, or even history and the museum tracks the history of the region from the origin of the earth right through to the cultural development of the native peoples, the Spanish invasion and aftermath with each major event or period represented in one of the main galleries. All this on top of ecology, evolution, palaeontology, modern animals of the region and more (and there are plenty of live animal exhibits as well as classic displays of casts and taxidermy).
The whole museum is only nine years old, and thus is really pretty new. Given their location in a relatively small state it is very impressive that their annual visitors already number in the hundreds of thousands, especially when you consider than the museum is still expanding and new parts are being added – it won’t be properly ‘complete’ for some years yet. Even so, it is an impressively large museum and with extensive gardens attached, it took me a good few hours to get around even without being able to read much of any of the signs, and of course not lingering over many of the basic exhibits (I have seen enough ‘formation of the Earth’ exhibits to last several lifetimes).
The lay-out is clear and straight forward and in general the signs are large, clearly written and with enough detail for the interested, but not dense and complicated for those who want to skim. My one serious complaint would be the lack of signs in English – I’m not being parochial, Saltillo is pretty close to the US and gets plenty of foreign visitors and if they want to attract or entertain more, then they will need English signs. Even so, many of them were pictographic so you could pick up a fair bit even without a word of Spanish in your vocabulary. The exhibits themselves are well though-out, clear, and put together well. Aside from the obvious continuity provided by time as you move through the museum, there is a still a logical sense of progression (e.g. using the dinosaurs to talk about extinction) and ideas are made simply and clearly with an emphasis on the evidence or related to an actual exhibit where possible.
One nice thing was the positive messages conveyed throughout about the ecology and the environment, with small sections devoted to habitat loss, and over hunting to demonstrate the problems this causes. There is a genuine effort throughout to engage a young audience with hands-on activities or exhibits, some of which are really quite innovative, rather than just the hated computer and TV screens (caution: link goes to a very sweary page). For example the very nice dinosaur gallery has a large window overlooking the attached preparation lab, equipped with a two-way microphone so not only can people watch the fossils being removed from the rocks, but ask the preparators questions about their work. (I should add here to any horrified preparators reading this that their computers face away from the window so that can still play solitaire, and the mic is under their control so they are not constantly bombarded with requests).
On the subject of the dinosaurs the mounts are excellent and dynamic, but the lighting meant my photos are terrible (though it was fine in person) so I can’t show you much. The animals chosen were a mix of those to show off the local fauna (Late Cretaceous of North America and thus a Tyrannosaurus, Quetzalcoatlus, Saltasaurus etc.) and casts of smaller important or interesting specimens from around the world (Archaeopteryx, Caudipterux, Rhamphorhynchus). Several were also accompanied by artwork or sculptures of life reconstructions which made a nice counterpoint to a hall otherwise simply full of skeletons.
Several other things are worth making mention of, firstly the live exhibits. I have a background that includes zoos and the enclosures here were excellent in pretty much every department – large, well laid out, well designed for the animals, the keepers and the public and well built. I was able to see some desert animals I had not seen before and all were in excellent condition and looked happy. I like museums that mix live and dead specimens, of course zoos are best for living animals in general, but it can serve as a nice counterpoint to stuffed specimens and models show how some things look alive such as comparing extinct lizards when compared to a living one for example. In the case of the museum here, they also conductive breeding and release programs for local wildlife (as well as rescuing unwanted pets of various exotics) and especially the numerous local reptiles and amphibians.
Moreover one of their senior staff is a world expert in cactuses and their breeding program here is probably the largest anywhere. Here is one photo I took of their young plants, and there are several more rooms this size, plus all the adult plants that are dotted around the extensive gardens and in the actual animal enclosures where appropriate. Not only do they trade and exchange these with other botanical collections in Mexico and abroad, but the excess plants are sold, both in the museum and in local shops with money going back into the program, and the public being encouraged to grow and plant their own botanical heritage back into their gardens and the wild, a wonderful concept.
Another unique and innovative touch is their use of schoolchildren as guides for school parties. I have no idea how this must work with the kids who take part (in terms of their normal school hours) but the idea is superb as kids will quite happily listen to a slightly older child who really knows their stuff (they get training) when they would probably ignore their teacher in the same circumstances. I saw several classes in rapt attention listening to their peers talk about dinosaurs or ecology which was great to see.
Finally in addition to the actual exhibition side of the museum and their breeding program, the museum also actively engages in research, primarily in vertebrate palaeontology. As I mentioned in my original posts about the fieldwork here, there are plenty of nearby localities and the museum is excavating, collecting, preparing and describing fossils, primarily in conjunction with German researchers, and hence my presence there. At least some of you may have heard of the hadrosaur Velafrons recently described by the palaeontologist working there, of which they have a beautiful and near complete skeleton. There are plenty more things awaiting preparation and description and this should be the first of many.
Overall it’s an excellent museum that would put many others in the west to shame. While they clearly have an extensive budget, it is used very well and to great effect. I can honestly hardly find a bad word to say about the place and it really does stand as a model for modern museums (and fits nicely with the Museo de las Aves for example LINK). Their website is also pretty good too and you can see a fair bit of the museum online there as well though it’s all in Spanish and a bit overdone on the whole Flash player stuff.