Western Science Center

I have had a vague awareness of the Western Science Center since my college days, when I shared archaeology classes with a girl who had once volunteered there. Located in the town of Hemet, it is however a little out of the way for most other Californians, and so I did not make it a priority to visit at the time. Since then, though, they have created quite an online presence for themselves, especially since Brittany Stoneburg of Cosplay for Science joined their staff. She and fellow scientist-cosplayer Gabe Santos of the Raymond Alf Museum have collaborated on a series of video interviews (called Fossil Friday Chats) which are not only fascinating in their own right, but also convinced me that I had not given their respective institutions their due. So it was that I made sure to set aside time during my recent California vacation to make the drive out to see this desert gem.

The long entry into the museum gets guests to ponder the reality of deep time, first by walking under successive markers of geologic time periods, and being greeted by an admission desk seemingly dug out of a deep segment of sedimentary deposits. Even one of the first proper exhibits features reconstructed maps of California throughout the known geologic record, with a clever slider one can overlay to get a sense of their relation to the modern shape of California.

While I knew it wasn’t the largest of museums, I was surprised to find it was actually somewhat on the small side. For my Texas readers, I would say it roughly compares to The Whiteside Museum or the Mayborn Museum in terms of actual exhibits, though it manages to give off the vibe of an institution twice its size (similar to my impression of the Mayborn).

The centerpieces of this museum are the mastodon and mammoth remains featured in the main hall. The exhibit creators took a unique approach to its design. Rather than simply recreate complete skeletons out of casts from other specimens, they took only what they had from semi-complete individuals in their own collection, and mounted the bones within a silhouette of the complete animal, one for a mammoth skeleton, and one for a mastodon (nicknamed “Max”, who serves as the museum’s mascot). I thought this was an inspired approach to exhibit design. It effectively communicates in entirely visual fashion how paleontologists are able to use what we know about other animals to make detailed observations about even fragmentary fossils. The only thing I would add is a version of the La Brea Tar Pits‘ “Mammoth fight” activity in front of Brian Engh’s similarly energetic mastodon mural!

The differences between mammoths and mastodons make for something of a running theme in the museum. I’m honestly a little surprised the gift shop didn’t carry Once Upon A Mastodon! Mammoths had sloping backs, curved tusks, and flat teeth, while mastodons had flatter backs, straighter tusks, and prominent crowns on their teeth (in fact the name “mastodon” means “nipple tooth”).

A recent addition to the main exhibit hall, created in collaboration with the Zuni Dinosaur Institute, focuses on the dinosaurs of the Menefee Formation in New Mexico. This includes the remains of crocodilians, a ceratopsian known as Menefeeceratops, and the hadrosaur Ornatops, but the star of the exhibit is undoubtedly the early tyrannosaur Dynamoterror. A cast of the holotype specimen hangs on the wall against a silhouette informed by its more complete relatives, and an incredibly lifelike bust by acclaimed paleoartist Brian Engh sits in the center of this area.

Outside the main exhibit hall one can find various smaller exhibits, including some temporary ones structured around specific themes. I was particularly keen on seeing “Kyrgyzstan Crossroads”, as it focuses on the research of Dr. Win McLoughlin, with whom I have had the pleasure of interacting with occasionally on Twitter, and so it was fun to see someone I already knew about highlighted in this manner. While prehistory of Kyrgyzstan might seem like odd focus, it sits (as the exhibit name implies) at the crossroads of migration routes between Africa and Central Asia, and so the fossils in this area have much to teach us about the evolution and dispersal of mammals throughout the Cenozoic.

Dr. Win and her research on Kyrgyzstan fossils and geology.

Another new exhibit provides a much needed PSA on a topic of some confusion amongst the general public: the difference between Paleontology and Archaeology. The exhibit is split into two halves, with displays on what constitutes Paleontology on the left side, and what counts as Archaeology on the right. A lift-the-flap activity encourages children to consider the differences between “artifacts” and “fossils”, though of course a nearby display case has to muddy the waters again by demonstrating the way in which the lines can be blurred. Is a carving made from the bone of an extinct animal a fossil or an artifact? What about especially prehistoric hominin skeletons that predate anatomically modern humans? I appreciate that the curators went out of their way to build this nuance into the exhibit.

While a nearby activity encourages kids to think about the differences between artifacts and fossils, this display case acknowledges the inherently blurred lines in studying prehistoric people who naturally interacted with the environment.

It was while we were exploring the Paleontology vs. Archaeology exhibit that Leya Collins recognized and stopped to say hi! Leya goes by @paleoprepprincess on Instagram, and we had already been following each other for some time. It was fun to finally meet each other in person! After chatting for a bit, she took us over to the replica fossil lab in the main hall, and helped us create our own fossils with molds and clay. She even introduced me to Brittany Stoneburg, who took the time to step away from an event she was setting up for to say hi to us as well.

I had a great time at the Western Science Center. I found the exhibits fascinating, and it was fun to meet people in person I had previously only interacted with online. While a bit far from the other typical attractions in Southern California, I certainly consider it worth the drive to visit. I even managed to squeeze in another prehistoric themed attraction and swung by the Cabazon Dinosaurs on my way home, but that’s a review for another time. Be sure to check out the Western Science Center whenever you get the chance! For more prehistoric Californian attractions, check out my reviews of the ingenious Fossil Reef Park as well as the world famous La Brea Tar Pits and Museum.

6 comments

  1. You visited the Cabazon Dinosaurs? The ones that have been taken over by creationist morons? You poor thing.

    Also, I believe the unnamed ceratopsid is Menefeeceratops, named relatively recently.

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