Today I’d like to talk about one of my all-time favorite museums, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science! I am a little behind the times with this review, as I last visited when I was passing through New Mexico on my way home from California over half a year ago. (I have already reviewed my Californian experiences, though! Check out my thoughts on the La Brea Tar Pits, the Western Science Center, the Raymond M. Alf Museum, Fossil Reef Park, and the Cabazon Dinosaurs.) I first fell in love with this place when I visited during my family’s move out to Texas, and I have looked for an excuse to visit again ever since.
The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, or NMMNH for short, sits in the city of Albuquerque, conveniently located along the route of I-40, a major thoroughfare for many a cross-country trek. (I had actually passed by it multiple times before I finally visited, and the knowledge that it was so close yet we couldn’t drop in drove me crazy every time!) The NMMNH focuses pretty much entirely on fossils from the state of New Mexico, which might seem obvious, except that it bucks a general trend I’ve noticed with other museums. Generally the smaller institutions focus on local paleontology, while larger museums take a broader view, but the NMMNH is probably the largest museum I have ever seen that devotes itself entirely to local fossils.
It helps that New Mexico has an incredibly rich fossil record. The museum still manages to display fossils from most of Earth’s geologic eras, with the local focus not limiting its chronological perspective at all. In fact, the entire place is laid out in a “walk through time” arrangement, with numbered exhibit halls guiding guests in the proper direction. Unless one accidentally skips a section (a few shortcuts exist between areas, though it’s generally obvious when you see them), visitors travel through:
- the formation of Earth and the origin of life
- the Paleozoic
- the Triassic
- “Jurassic Super Giants”
- a Cretaceous coastline
- the End Cretaceous extinction event
- New Mexican volcanic activity in the Cenozoic
- Cenozoic life
- and a non-chronological space devoted to New Mexican dinosaurs in general
The whole experience really captures the imagination, and several of the areas especially catch the eye with their rich details. Two of my personal highlights are the “Jurassic Super Giants” and the Cretaceous coastline, both richly decorated to look like prehistoric environments, with the creatures in them displayed in lifelike poses. The Jurassic hall features the giant allosaur Saurophaganax facing off against the mighty Seismosaurus (now considered the largest species of Diplodocus, D. hallorum), along with a Stegosaurus and the single massive arm of a Brachiosaurus off to the side. The backdrop to these titans might excite certain paleonerds in equal measure, however. A giant mural by famed paleoartist Ely Kish aides the mind’s eye in imagining these creatures with flesh on the bones, and while I sometimes find Kish’s dinosaur designs rather off-putting, these don’t look too bad. Even better, however, is that the museum actually dedicates a pair of plaques to discussing Ely Kish herself, and her artistic vision. It speaks to a level of respect for their artists that many other museums do not necessarily share. (It is perhaps unsurprising then that this museum hosted a very well-received paleoart symposium in 2018, between my two visits.)
The Cretaceous coastline exhibit is even more lushly detailed, with a forest of live plants on the shore side of the exhibit space. The creatures here are mostly represented by sculptures, though a Pentaceratops skull floats ethereally in the bushes. Visitors get to view this exhibit from multiple angles, from high above the water and tree line, to the sea floor, to the bottom of some primitive mammal’s burrow (with a raptor trying to dig its way in!). Near a small family of hadrosaurs, an audio activity allows visitors to hear what Parasaurolophus sounded like, reproduced by modeling its actual nasal passages. The mosasaur sculpture definitely steals the show on the aquatic side, but don’t miss the faux-taxidermized Ichthyornis flying overhead!
I don’t want to spoil the experience by showing too much more, but the rest of the experience is just as engaging. From falling asteroids, to volcanoes, to dinosaur tracks on a mine shaft ceiling, there’s a lot more to see here! My boys particularly enjoyed a virtual activity where they courted the wrath of various dinosaur species. Apart from the main fossil exhibits, the museum also features a small astronomy section, as well as space for temporary, traveling exhibits. Funnily enough, the exhibit they hosted at the time of my last visit was a Looney Tunes retrospective, which is particularly appropriate considering Bugs Bunny’s tendency to take the wrong turn at Albuquerque.
I also must praise their gift shop’s selection. They had plenty of good books on sale, including copies of the official scientific journal put out by the museum! I’ve never seen a museum that delivers the actual research directly to their visitors like this, and I for one think it’s an idea many other museums should consider doing as well (not necessarily by publishing their own journals, but offering copies of relevant scientific papers for sale). I bought myself a book on local dinosaur discoveries produced for New Mexico’s centennial statehood celebration. Oddly enough, I also saw a book called “Bluebonnet at Dinosaur Valley State Park“, a fanciful tale about an armadillo who meets her time-traveling great-great-uncle glyptodont at Texas’s Dinosaur Valley State Park. I had already found this book at my local library, and have been meaning to review it for some time. It was so funny finding this here, of all places! (I also saw Dinosaur Feathers and Animals of a Bygone Era for sale here, which I had good things to say about.) The toy selection had unfortunately taken a bit of a hit since my first visit, when it had a selection of Safari Ltd. and Papo models that surpassed even that which made me praise The Whiteside Museum‘s gift shop so highly. Sadly, this time there were only a few of the more common Papo models available. That’s just the entitled geek in me talking, though. There were plenty of cool toys and other items sure to tempt visitors less narrow-minded than myself! I have to admit the Ceratosaurus skeleton grabbers my sons got are pretty awesome.
Whether you take the right or left turn at Albuquerque, I highly recommend stopping long enough to visit the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. I can’t overstate just how much I enjoyed this place, and I hope every paleonerd that finds themselves in the area gets the chance to drop in and explore this place as well!