Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 2

After visiting the La Brea Tar Pits and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we headed to Claremont to check out the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. I had heard lots of good things about the Alf Museum and have been wanting to check it out for some time. Many, many thanks to Curator Andy Farke (as well as Lucy Herrero and Gabriel Santos) for generously taking the time to show us around!

The Alf Museum is housed in a distinctive circular building, with a peccary mosaic over the door.

The Alf Museum is extremely unique. Located at the Webb School in Claremont, it is the only nationally accredited museum on a high school campus. The museum grew out of the collection of Webb teacher Raymond Alf. Though he was not a paleontologist by training, Alf became hooked on fossils after finding a Miocene peccary skull on a 1936 trip to the Mojave Desert. Alf continued to take students fossil hunting year after year, building a sizable collection in the basement of the library and any other storage space he could find. In 1968, alumi and school administrators came together to establish the non-profit Alf Museum, with Raymond Alf himself serving as its first director. Alf passed away in 1999, but lived long enough to see his museum become an internationally recognized research institution.

Webb School students continue to take an active part in collecting and research at the museum. All students go through a paleontology course in 9th grade, and about a fifth of the student body remains involved afterward. 95% of the museum’s 140,000 fossils were found by students on “peccary trips” to California, Utah, and Arizona. Students also lead tours and work in the state-of-the-art fossil prep and digitization labs. To date, 28 students have co-authored technical papers before graduating, all of which are proudly displayed at the museum.

Alf and a group of students collected this Permian reptile trackway in 1967 near Seligman, Arizona.

In the Hall of Footprints, mounted skeletons are cleverly placed over real fossil trackways.

There are two exhibits at the Alf Museum, each taking up one of the two floors. The lower level houses the Hall of Footprints, which was last renovated in 2002. This exhibit showcases one of the largest fossil trackway collections in the United States. Trace fossils on display range from Permian reptiles and insects to Cenozoic elephants and camels, as well as important holotypes like the world’s only known amphicyonid (bear-dog) trackway. To quote Dr. Farke, much of the footprint collection was acquired by “being stupid.” Despite being miles from any road, Alf and his students would cut colossal track-bearing slabs out of the bedrock by hand. Between the logistical problems and the availability of digitization techniques like photogrammetry, few modern ichnologists would condone Alf’s practices. On the other hand, his recklessness ensured that these fossils are available for study today, even after many of the source localities have weathered away or been vandalized.

The main level’s Hall of Life is a more traditional walk through time, but with an Alf Museum spin. Visitors follow the circumference of the annular building, starting with the origin of the universe and progressing chronologically through the major milestones in the evolution of life on Earth. The bigger, showier aspects of the exhibit are not unique to the museum. There’s a cast of the Red Deer River Centrosaurus from the American Museum of Natural History, and a composite cast of a Cleveland-Lloyd Allosaurus. A model of the famous transitional fish Tiktaalik has an identical twin at the Field Museum. Like many modern exhibits, walls are filled in with large murals and a varied color palate is used to demarcate themed sections. Different audio tracks throughout the exhibit are subtlety employed in the same way (the sound of buzzing prairie insects symbolizing the rise of grasslands in the Cenozoic is particularly inspired).

Showy dinosaur casts undoubtedly draw visitors’ attention.

Original and cast specimens from the Paleozoic are illustrated by one of several murals by Karen Carr.

Once one looks past the more ostentatious parts of the display, the Alf Museum really gets interesting. Since Dr. Farke was involved in the Hall of Life’s 2011 renovation, he could explain the design choices in detail. Some of these follow Farke’s own sensibilities. For instance, the scientific method and the evidence for evolution are strongly emphasized. Most labels are implicitly written to answer the question how do we know? Interactives tend to be of the analog variety, and multimedia is only used to illustrate things that could not be effectively shown with a static display. One example is a video where a computer model of a pterosaur skeleton demonstrates the quadrupedal launch hypothesis.

Expressive Dinictis and Hyaenodon mounts welcome visitors to the Cenozoic.

“What are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Nevertheless, in both large and small ways the main themes of the exhibit are modeled after Raymond Alf’s own teaching philosophies. Following Alf’s lead in trusting students to treat specimens mindfully and respectfully, many objects are not in cases and within arm’s reach. The circular halls harmonize with the “spiral of time,” Alf’s preferred metaphor for the geological record (and circles and spirals are a recurring visual motif throughout the museum). Perhaps most importantly, the Hall of Life’s walk through time doesn’t end in the past but in the present. This final section includes nods to the archaeological record, as well as cases featuring new research and discoveries by Webb School students. The message is that despite our short time on Earth, humans have had a profound impact on the planet and every individual has a part to play in the larger story of the universe. As Alf repeatedly asked his students, “what are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Student stories and quotes can be found throughout the exhibits.

The most thought-provoking thing that Farke told me was that the Alf Museum is intended for three distinct audiences. There are the regular museum visitors, seeking a generalized look at paleontology. Then there are current Webb School students, who make use of the museum as part of their classes. Finally, there is the larger cohort of Webb alumni, who want to see specimens they remember from decades past (including fossils they collected themselves) and to reflect on their time at the school and on Raymond Alf himself. It is the nods to this third group that make the Alf Museum’s exhibits uncommonly special. Even as an outsider who had never met a Webb student and was just learning about Alf’s legacy, I found that the museum has a palpable sense of community.

Between the photos of beaming students on peccary trips to the unattributed Raymond Alf quotes printed high on the walls, the shared experiences of the Webb School community are intractably situated within the exhibits. Objects on display are illustrative specimens, but they are also more. Each one represents a rich tapestry of people, places, and experiences, and embodies a sort of collective memory starting with its discovery and extending into the present day. For me, at least, this is what natural history is all about.


Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work, mammals, museums, reviews, science communication

5 responses to “Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 2

  1. Alastair Savage

    What a wonderful man! I feel I have to defend him though. When you say “few modern ichnologists would condone Alf’s practices … his recklessness” I feel think is irrelevant. Modern experts only attained their level of professionalism because of bold amateurs like Mr Alf. Were our forebears supposed to just leave stuff in place so that people a hundred years later would be able to dig it up properly? Similar criticism abounds in archaeology as Victorians and others are attacked for their lack of systematic record-keeping when excavating Saxon sites and the like, which is absurd. In this case, modern experts really are standing on the shoulders of giants.

  2. Ben

    Oh, absolutely. I hope I was clear above that Alf’s ambitious trackway collecting definitely turned out to be a good thing for science! Maybe less good for the backs of the students who had to carry the slabs to the truck or wherever. 🙂

  3. Michael Sisley

    Wow, that is an amazing museum! I’m almost envious of those students and the opportunities they had.

    And Alf sounds like the greatest teacher one could ever dream of having, a true mentor and jokester in one, that is how one learns. Bet he’d have loved GPS when t came too those tracks but I’m sure he’d have mapped more if he could and I feel he’d have done what he could with what he had.
    Most of all I admire how he saw the value of respecting the specimens as you mentioned… I see this less and less now.

    By the way loved this and part 1!

  4. Andy Farke

    Really awesome post–thank you for highlighting our museum! I’m really proud of the exhibits and collections, and it’s wonderful to see the thoughts from someone who isn’t steeped in it all the time like I am!

    Following up on Alastair’s comment, I should clarify that when I say that Alf was “being stupid” for collecting some of the track slabs he did, I was being (mostly) facetious. He had the sort of raw ambition that few people do, collecting objects of sizes that I would never even imagine! And as Ben noted, this means that some pretty special specimens have been preserved that might have otherwise been chunked up into little pieces or else lost to the elements or vandalism.

    Re: Michael’s comments, I’ve heard so many of Ray’s former students talk about their formative experiences with him. He was indeed a master teacher, and it is quite something to hear people now in their 70s and 80s quoting lessons and maxims from their time as teenagers, or proudly displaying their biology notebooks that they compiled decades ago and have kept ever since as a precious memento. He did indeed make the most of his brief moment in time!

    • Michael Sisley

      It really looks like a museum which respects it’s displays (unlike Te Papa where I live) and I hope too see it if I ever go too LA!

      It’s not like they had GPS back then. Anyway they had limited mapping technology then (I’m sure they did what they could) and certainly did a better job then many others did on those footprints relatively speaking at said time.

      That truly is great, he was the sort of person we all need at said time of our lives and for more then just as a teacher in his subject but as a mentor in life, he taught them how too be people.

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