Our family usually maintains a membership to the Dallas Zoo, which provides plenty of entertainment in its own right, but also offers discounts to several other zoos that participate in a particular network. I noticed the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas on the list, and as I had felt the urge to take a day trip somewhere that direction already, we had the perfect excuse for our excursion. However, while messing around on Instagram mere minutes before leaving, I noticed that the Mayborn Museum at Baylor University (also in Waco) had a temporary attraction based around my boys’ current favorite cartoon show, Paw Patrol. I felt practically obligated to let them experience that before it ended its run, so we made a last minute change in destination and headed there instead. (For any animal lovers rolling their eyes at me, my boys still didn’t forget the zoo, however, and asked to go there as well! We didn’t have time to do both, so I decided we would just go back down and see the zoo the following week.)
But this blog focuses on prehistory rather than random kids’ paraphernalia, and a temporary exhibit hardly tells one anything about the typical museum experience, so what of the rest of our visit? Although on roughly the same scale as a smaller museum like the Whiteside or the Heard, the Mayborn Museum has a layout and design sensibility that makes it feel like a rather larger institution. Visitors begin in the main hall, with a Tyrannosaurus skeletal cast based on fossils from West Texas (though the signage acknowledges the fact that the Big Bend material may or may not represent T. rex itself), before moving on to the main exhibits, on a tour of Texas throughout history (one might even call it… Texas Through Time?).
The fossil halls give one a delightful impression of touring some mysterious old man’s private curiousity cabinet, with trimmings recalling some grand old house, and various assortments of specimens. (Historical note: “Curiosity Cabinets” were not necessarily just cupboards full of bored rich people’s knickknacks. They could comprise whole rooms or even houses, and were in many ways the first proto-museums. The title of Mary Anning’s Curiosity references this practice, common in the protagonist’s time.) One room which mildly breaks this impression houses a life-sized replica of a pliosaur discovered in the region, shown chasing a school of squid (or possibly belemnites).
Once one reaches the Protostega (a prehistoric sea turtle and close relative of the more famous Archelon), coincidentally framed in a manner very reminiscent of JW: Fallen Kingdom‘s Lockwood Manor, several passages branch off to display various other aspects of Texas’ human and natural history.
The two paths to the left of the Protostega feature walkthrough reproductions of Texas caves and woodlands, while the path ahead features historical exhibits on the Native Americans and European settlers of Texas, before looping back to the main entrance. More pertinently to this blog, however, the path on the right leads visitors up a stormy gulch to the site of a mass grave… the remains of Waco’s own (former) resident Columbian Mammoth herd. The Mayborn Museum is actually the main repository for fossils excavated from the nearby Waco Mammoth National Monument, a digsite which has itself been been enclosed and turned into an in-situ museum, similar to the La Brea Tar Pits or Dinosaur National Monument. That place deserves its own review, but the Mayborn provides something of a preview with an entire semi-excavated block full of adult and juvenile mammoths skeletons, encased beneath a glass floor, allowing guests to walk all over it and examine it from above. It makes for a refreshingly different way to enjoy the fossils, adding a unique twist on the museum experience.
After making our way through the history exhibits back to the main hall, we decided to check out the other half of the museum, home to the Jeanes Discovery Center and Backyard Ecology areas. With the exception of a model railroad display, the most of the interactive children’s play areas in the Discovery Center were still blocked off due to Covid precautions, but the Backyard Ecology area teaching children about local habitats and wildlife was still completely open. This area houses terrariums and aquariums full of live animals, as well as a few activities, some of which were still open. My boys most enjoyed the water play table teaching kids about river flow and hydroelectricty, and had lots of fun setting up dams to more efficiently direct the river’s flow through sets of water wheels and make them spin faster.
We had a great time at the Mayborn Museum. I have actually visited once before, a few years ago, and I enjoyed it just as much this time. The exhibits are plenty interesting & nicely designed, and while the normal children’s area wasn’t fully open during our visit, the temporary Paw Patrol attraction made up for at least some of the activities normally offered there. I recommend it to anyone in the area, and give it a satisfied Dino Dad Stomp of Approval! For more Texas museums, check out my reviews of the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, Dinosaur Valley State Park, the ICR Discovery Center, Texas Through Time, and the Heard Natural Science Museum.