I enjoy visiting natural history museums. They make me get excited like a little boy. It’s probably because of the dinosaurs. Who doesn’t like dinosaurs? I recently made a visit to the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa, AZ, and I’m glad I did.
This museum is housed inside the old civic center of Mesa built in 1937 as part of the WPA. After Mesa built new government offices, the museum took over the whole building and eventually added a couple of new wings. Overall, the museum is pretty impressive for not being a brand new building that was completely built as a dedicated museum space. Instead, they have been able to adapt an old building into a good museum.
I started my visit in the temporary pterosaurs (flying dinos) exhibit. It was a bit sparse and lighting could have been upped a notch, but the exhibit gave some great information and tidbits of knowledge while displaying some fantastic fossils and models. The skeleton of Earth’s largest flying beast hangs in the middle of the room while others hang here and there.
It turns out I went in the museum exhibits from the wrong way and probably should have started in a different hall. Unfortunately, the lady at the ticket desk didn’t give any direction or suggestions for where to start or what to see. This isn’t a big deal since it doesn’t through the whole thing off, but it means you go through some of the exhibits in the wrong order.
I found myself in the back courtyard after wandering through another special exhibit displaying weird and unusual artifacts. The courtyard was great. There is an area for panning gold, a mine tunnel describing mining in Arizona, a dino-dig area for kids to uncover fossils, and a short garden path sharing Arizona’s five C’s – Climate, Climate, Cotton, Citrus and Copper.
My next stop is an original feature of the government building that just so happens to be a fascinating exhibit in a museum. Since the building housed courts, there was also a jail, so in the back of the building and now part of the museum is the cell block. These cells were moved here in the 1930s from an old prison built in the late nineteenth century.
Out of the prison is a shaft of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine telling that legend to visitors. There is also a space telling the story of Spanish colonization in Arizona and then a space with Mesoamerican and Mayan culture since it may have been influential in the later cultures of AZ. From there I found my way into a larger exhibition hall with the story of Arizona’s indigenous peoples, particularly the Hohokam. There are some extensive displays of their way of life. Also, a fantastic way to display their pottery.
The next section I found is the area people think about when discussing natural history museums. It was the exhibition hall with dinosaurs and origins of life exhibits. The whole space is built around Dinosaur Mountain, an impressive three-story display showing different time periods with animatronics, sound effects and a “flash flood.” Unfortunately, the only animatronic I saw working was the T-rex.
Opposite the mountain is the museum’s dinosaur display with a few skeletons and many other fossils creatively displayed (one of them spans the staircase and another is backed by a mirror). Not letting the space go to waste, behind and under the mountain are more exhibits including some large dioramas and some living exhibits.
The last exhibition space I visited was the Arizona and the Movies space chronicling Arizona’s rich heritage in Hollywood films. There are many movie posters, some costumes and props used to tell the story.
I enjoyed the museum on the whole. There were a few places that lighting, especially on signs, could have been better and maybe the flow or direction of the exhibits better labeled. However, that didn’t ruin the experience. I also liked that throughout there were interactive things for kids like giant puzzles on the floor. Next time I will will have to visit the Mesa Grande, “one of the last surviving Hohokam platform mounds,” which is operated by the museum. Until then, go have an adventure! Maybe there’s a natural history museum near you to explore.