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Home on the Range: Where the Dinosaurs Roamed

April L. Barry

1The mesalands of northeastern New Mexico are well known for the abundant fossil deposits from Triassic times – the dawn of the dinosaurs – as well as fossil remains of other ages and diverse paleontological treasures found and yet to be discovered. Museums around the world have excavated, exhibited, and studied specimens found here.

Recognizing that an opportunity was, literally, under their feet, in 1996, the new administrators at Mesalands Community College began to develop programs in paleontology and geology to preserve, study, and promote the region’s rich heritage as one of the premier deposits of fossilized ancient life. To complement these natural science programs, the college also began to seek a suitable space to serve as laboratories for teaching and exhibit preparation, as well as a small public display facility.

How to Build a World-Class Museum for Under $1,000,000. The Mesalands Community College Foundation, Inc., established in 1996 to raise funds for scholarships, undertook the challenging role of raising funds for the proposed laboratories and museum in Tucumcari. These may seem like modest goals, but the college is located in a rural, isolated town of 6,000 nestled in Quay County, which has a population of 10,000 people and a much higher number of cattle.

An advisory committee was formed, including representatives from government entities and the community. College personnel and the committee developed a comprehensive plan to establish strategic priorities and goals in order to accomplish this project in three phases.

Phase I – Education, Discovery, and Awareness called for implementing field courses in natural science that would produce significant paleontological and geological specimens to place on public exhibit to create awareness of the rich natural resources of the area and how they are collected and studied. Residents of this ranching and agricultural community found themselves receiving an education in the history of the area going back much farther than the original nomadic Native Americans and pioneer settlers with which they were familiar.

1A vacant, single-story, former department store was approved for purchase, and efforts were made to plan and implement building alterations. Emphasis was on access and safety requirements for academic use and on exhibit space to display the fossil specimens found by the field class students and donated by local citizens – once they learned what they had stacked up in their barns and backyards.

The foundation initiated an $840,000 capital campaign. The Phase I goal was to raise $406,000, which was met with overwhelming local generosity within six months. And so began the work of design, construction, and renovation.

One of the popular technical programs offered by the college is bronze sculpture casting, which is held in a state-of-the-art foundry built in a separate building on the small campus. The paleontologist and fine arts instructor combined talents to create casts of fossils from dinosaur teeth and claws to full skeletons. Students in natural sciences, art, anatomy, and welding collaborated on more than two dozen bronze projects, from teeth and claws to whole skeletons made up of hundreds of individual casts. Along with adding beautiful works of art to outstanding scientific exhibits, these pieces became exhibits visitors are allowed and encouraged to touch.

Phase II – Appreciation detailed plans for future use of specimens collected in field 1classes for more interpretative displays focusing on the rocks and fossils of this corner of New Mexico, allowing the public to gain a greater appreciation for the natural history of the area. To accomplish this, the capital campaign entered its second phase to raise the remaining $434,000 to meet the original goal. These funds were raised within nine months through exhibit sponsorships by local financial institutions and civic organizations; individual donations; a “Dimes for Dinosaurs” campaign by local school children; and a “Buy a Bone” campaign to pay for a cast of a full Torvosaurus skeleton, at the time the only one on public exhibit.

Under the guidance of the museum curator, a paleontologist, specimens were sorted and inventoried, storage and exhibit cabinets and partition walls were built, exhibit labels were composed and created, and the final exhibits were prepared. Most of this work was accomplished by thousands of volunteer hours and donations of professional labor and materials.

To attract more attention to the May 2000 grand opening, the museum’s paleontologist arranged with artist Dave Thomas to borrow his huge, life-sized Acrocanthosaurus fiberglass sculpture, featured on the Discovery Channel, for the first month the museum was in business. Unfortunately, Mr. Thomas passed away soon after his dinosaur was delivered to the museum, leaving his heirs to attend to many important matters. When they finally asked for the return of their Acrocanthosaurus, it had become a beloved fixture in the Cretaceous area of the museum. Instead of a public outcry, a few local citizens started their own “Save the Dinosaur” fundraising campaign to purchase this colorful meat eater. In less than two weeks, $40,000 was raised and the purchase offer was accepted by the estate.

Phase III – Interpretation was implemented to use knowledge of the ancient environments and ecologies of eastern New Mexico and integrate it into an understanding of global processes and problems. Fundraising efforts concentrated on major donations from corporations and foundations to provide major exhibits. This met with limited success, but donations keep coming in from businesses and individuals for the museum’s continued development.

During Phase III, a second detailed strategic plan was put together to focus on improving or enhancing existing exhibits, developing new exhibits, expanding educational programming, developing marketing strategies, exploring fundraising resources, and even identifying priorities and goals relating to mundane operational and maintenance procedures.

Benefits to the College and the Community’s Economic Development. Although located at the crossroads of two busy highways, Interstate 40 and US Highway 54, for the past 20 years Tucumcari’s businesses and jobs have been disappearing, its population has been shrinking, and the mean income has dropped dramatically. The largest local employers are the school district, regional hospital, and Mesalands Community College, with the rest of the jobs primarily in the low-income areas of restaurants, lodging, and other travel and tourism-related businesses. The ability to raise $900,000 in local donations, with another $100,000 from the state of New Mexico, to build a first-rate educational facility that would also attract tourists and visiting scientists also raised the hopes that the community could rally together and begin to grow again.

1Since opening, interest in the museum has grown exponentially. While monetary donations continue to come in, scientists and amateur collectors alike have donated items or entire collections: boxes of meteorites and related books and photos from a retired Texas professor; many hundreds of 300 million-year-old plant fossils from a retired professor in Iowa; and an extensive collection of skulls of modern birds and animals of Quay County, New Mexico, from the local game warden.

One of the museum’s goals has been to have a new exhibit every year, and although space in the exhibit hall is becoming scarce, this goal has been met annually through creative planning, design, and construction by the skeleton (so to speak) crew on hand: the curator, a Ph.D. paleontologist and the college’s natural science instructor; the director, who is officially part-time, but puts in about 50 hours a week; the museum aide, who does everything from minding the museum’s shop and greeting visitors to mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms; a part-time museum assistant who also performs duties on behalf of the college and its foundation; and a handful of volunteers.

Highway billboards and word-of-mouth have brought the most visitors off the interstate and about two miles into town to see this museum, and more people are exploring the internet for unusual attractions. After more than seven years in business, the museum has many return visitors who look forward to this stop as one of their vacation destinations to see what’s new. Keeping meticulous attendance records, museum personnel greeted the museum's 100,000th visitor on November 3, 2007.

While the educational facility and museum have not created many high-paying jobs, Tucumcari has seen the construction and development of many more motels, truck stops, and food service establishments during the past five years. The success of these businesses depends on travelers getting off the highways and staying overnight in town. By offering them an entertaining, educational, quality museum where they can spend a couple of hours, the Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum has definitely contributed to this success.

April L. Barry works in Administrative Services at Mesalands Community College.

Photos are courtesy of the Dinosaur Museum.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor

League for Innovation in the Community College
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