As regular readers may have gathered by now, I have a particular fondness for small museums. Not only do they serve an important role in outreach to smaller, more local communities, but most of them have some unique aspect that gives them a tighter focus which a larger institution with broader goals might lack. The Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology embodies all the best aspects of its kin, and can boast a unique location on top of that! Location certainly sets the Alf Museum apart from pretty much any other museum, large or small, as it sits on the campus of the Webb Schools, a high school in Claremont, California.
The museum got its start when a Webb Schools’ teacher, Raymond Alf, took up paleontology as a hobby and discovered a 15 million year old peccary skull in 1936 with one of his students. Fossil collecting “peccary trips” with Alf became a regular extracurricular activity for the students, and they soon built up an impressive collection of rare fossils that they stored in Alf’s classroom and the school library’s basement. In the 1960s, parents and alumni raised funds to give the fossils a proper home, and the Alf Museum was born. Not only do students continue to go on fossil collecting field trips with museum staff, but they are offered a unique research program where they can actually publish the results of research they do in collaboration with the scientists there. I would have killed to attend this school back in my day, though I sadly did not find out about it until read about Ray Troll & Kirk Johnson’s visit in Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline. I did get to experience their fossil collection as a visitor recently, however, so at least I can share my experience here with you!
The museum is shaped like a ring, and consists of two levels. Walking counter-clockwise through the upper level, known as the Hall of Life, takes visitors on a journey through time from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic. They manage to pack an impressive amount of material into their small space, including large skeletal mounts of the ferocious Allosaurus and the single-horned Centrosaurus that are sure to please any dinosaur fan. As visitors come back around towards the front entrance, they can see one of the museum’s prize specimens: a highly complete baby Parasaurolophus named “Joe”.
The lower level of the museum houses additional displays, as well as the off-display collections and fossil preparation lab, which can be viewed through a few windows in the back. While the lower level has a few skeletons such as a pretty cool “bear-dog” known as Amphicyon, this area mainly focuses on ichnology, or trace fossils, primarily footprints in this case. Most of the guest activity stations are down here as well, though they were all still closed during my visit due to COVID precautions.
Here visitors can view the preserved footprints of dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and other ancient creatures. Ancient reptile trackways from the Grand Canyon’s Coconino Sandstone make several appearances, apparently the result of a focused study by museum staff. (The most impressive wall-mounted Coconino slab I have pictured above technically sits near the entrance of the Hall of Life upstairs, though you can find the most info about these remains downstairs.) We particularly enjoyed the fossil camel skeleton mounted atop its own footprints. It helps bring the display to life, especially for easily-distracted youngsters that might have trouble picturing the connection in their minds.
One of the closed-off activity areas featured a cast of a sauropod footprint from Dinosaur Valley State Park next to what looked like a fossil dig pit. I was very tempted to sneak past the rope so I could recreate a famous photo of a child bathing in one of the Paluxy River footprints, especially since my similarly-aged son just so happened to be wearing overalls that day, but I figured I should set a good example instead.
The true highlight of the experience however, at least from my perspective, was getting to meet paleontologists Andy Farke & Gabe Santos while we were there! I had failed to notice that the museum requires timed entry, as it been taking extra COVID security precautions due to its locations on a school campus. I ended up having to wait a little over an hour at a nearby playgound (which my active boys did not mind at all!) and posted about my mistake online. Andy happened to see my post, and insisted I say hello when I did manage to get inside! He also let Gabe know, as they were both teaching some students behind the scenes at the time, so they took turns coming out to meet me. They even gave us some goodies, including fossil dig kits for the boys and an Alf Museum shirt for myself!
Incidentally, Gabe is a member of Cosplay for Science along with Brittany Stoneburg, who I also met during my visit to the Western Science Center. They have been collaborating together on the Fossil Friday Chats video series that one can view via the Alf Museum’s YouTube account, which I highly recommend. Each video features an interview with a different paleontologist, who discuss their specialty within the field.
We had a great time at the Alf Museum, and I am personally very impressed with what they have managed to accomplish in their limited space, in both advancing and communicating science. I would definitely consider visiting again next time I am in Southern California. Hopefully by then the activity stations will be open and I can update this review with some demonstrations! If you find yourself in the area, I definitely recommend checking it out for yourself! For more SoCal fossil-themed attractions, check out my reviews of the La Brea Tar Pits, the afore-mentioned Western Science Center and nearby Cabazon Dinosaurs, and the fantastically niche Fossil Reef Park in Laguna Hills.