The big building at 53 N. Macdonald in Mesa has come a long way since it housed Arizona Territory desperados. But the old jail cells are still there.
"The cells fit right in to the Mesa Southwest Museum’s mission, which is to collect, preserve and research the natural history of the Southwest," says Cindy
Diaz, spokeswoman for the museum.
The Mesa Southwest Museum started in 1977 as a mere 3,000-square-foot room of local artifacts, but as Southwestern history grew in popularity, so did the museum. After completing an expansion project five years ago, which was funded by a bond election granting it $4.5 million, the museum is now an 80,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art showpiece with a budget of just less than $2 million. Last year, more than 100,000 visitors passed through its doors.
The museum houses more than 48,000 artifacts, ranging from dinosaur fossils, ancient Hohokam pottery, various meteorites and an eyepopping structure named Dinosaur Mountain.
The three-story mountain, constructed by museum staff and its volunteers, illustrates the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous ages, complete with many of those era’s creatures. Every 42 minutes, the waterfall flash-floods, reflecting a day in the dangerous life of Arizona’s vanished dinosaurs.
The mountain and its resident dinosaurs should make "Sue," a 42-foot-long, 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton arriving Saturday, feel right at home. ‘‘A T-Rex Named Sue’’ will be the largest exhibit the museum has displayed.
"When we found out that Sue was going to travel, we made sure we were put on her touring schedule," says Thomas H. Wilson, administrator for the museum. "She’s the queen of dinosaurs."
Wilson was brought on board last June, and, like most of the staff at the museum, he is an avid dinosaur aficionado.
"I grew up on a big ranch in southern New Mexico and was always finding arrowheads and pottery scattered around," he says. "Collecting them became my hobby, and then my hobby turned into a profession."
Wilson’s background is unusual in that his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees are in anthropology but he also has a law degree.
"When you’re involved with museums which bring in traveling exhibits like Sue, there are always contracts to be negotiated," he explains. "And then there’s all the health and safety stuff, such as what to do if a dinosaur falls on somebody’s head."
As crazy as the museum is about dinosaurs, though, the popular moving and roaring dinosaurs are not its only exhibits.
In keeping with its mission, the museum also houses the Hall of Astronomy, which includes an extraordinary meteor exhibit.
"People frequently wonder what space has to do with Arizona, but we’ve got five observatories here, and Lowell, up at Flagstaff, is actually the observatory which discovered the planet Pluto," Diaz says. "We have pieces of meteors in here and a casting of the Tucson meteorite which was being used as an anvil in a blacksmith’s shop before it was sent off to the Smithsonian Institution. We like to tell people we cover the history of Arizona from the beginning of time to the Space Age."
Which leaves a lot of room in the middle.
But the Mesa Southwest Museum has got that covered, too. Included in its collections are exhibits such as Hohokam dwellings in the Native Peoples gallery, a reconstruction of 17th- and 18th-century missionary Father Eusibio Francisco Kino’s original mission, the Lost Dutchman Mine, the Territorial Jail (with aforementioned jail cells), a handson gold panning stream in the History Courtyard, Arizona movie artifacts and even a fine arts gallery where paintings by artists such as Charles R. Knight are displayed.
What many people don’t know is that the building on Macdonald is not the museum’s only holding. The Mesa Southwest Museum also oversees the Sirrine House Historic Museum, a Queen Annestyle home furnished in the style of the day; and the Mesa Grande ruins, an ancient Hohokam platform mound that dates back to approximately 1000 A.D.
The museum is proud of its many education opportunities.
"We offer educational activities for everyone, from kindergarten through college and even after," says Angelica Docog, educational director and the museum’s assistant director. "For the kids, we have the Hands-On Adventure Center and the Weekend Wonders and Family Fridays. For the adults we have the Brown Bag Lecture Series, as well educational field work at our site at the Mesa Grande ruins."
While most of the educational activities at the museum are centered around anthropology, paleontology and archeology, every now and then a new educational opportunity emerges.
"We are now one of the official training sites for the Phoenix Guide Dog Raisers," Docog says. "Because we have stairs, ramps, elevators, tunnels and all sorts of unusual areas to get through, we are really a perfect place for their training exercises."
Last August, the guide dogs visited for a special Guide Dog Awareness Day, and Docog relates happily that although the museum does contain several tons of bones, none of the dogs tried to bury any.
The museum’s budget of $2 million may sound high, but it is actually small for a museum of its size and breadth. The only way the museum has been able to offer so many resources to the community is because of its outstanding volunteer program.
"We simply couldn’t exist without our volunteers," says Anna Sanchez, head of the program. "This past year alone we had 268 volunteers ranging in age from 13 to 89, putting in what would amount to $160,000 worth of work if we had to pay them. We love our volunteers, we just love them."
The museum’s volunteers perform a wide variety of tasks: Stuffing envelopes, doing research, transcribing taped oral histories, cataloging and leading tours. They also help construct the museum’s exhibits, such as Dinosaur Mountain and the Hohokam dwellings.
"I’ve been volunteering at the museum since 2001," says Eagle Scout Ethan Jackson, a senior at Mesa’s Mountain View High School. "One time when I was working with some kids in the Hands-On Adventure Center, I saw some visually-impaired children feeling objects in the astronomy display. There were having fun, but they had to have a sighted guide to explain what they were touching. So as an Eagle Scout project, I implemented putting Braille labels on exhibits like that."
Diaz sees the museum’s volunteer program as just another step in creating a museum of the people, by the people and for the people.
"For a long time, Valley residents didn’t realize that the Mesa Southwest Museum was here, so we were a kind of undiscovered treasure," she says. "But not only do our volunteers work on brick-andmortar installations, they also go out into the community and tell our story. That’s why we are growing like we are."
Mesa Southwest Museum
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays.
Where: 53 N. Macdonald, Mesa
Admission: Free for members and children younger than 3; $3 children 3 to 12; $5 students with I.D.; $5 seniors 55 and over; $6 adults
General information: (480) 644-2230 or www.cityof mesa.org/swmuseum
Education programs: (480) 644-5083
• Sirrine House is at 160 N. Center St., Mesa. (480) 644-2760.
• The Mesa Grande ruins are located southwest of the intersection of Country Club Drive and Brown Road, Mesa, behind the Mesa Lutheran Hospital at the corner of 10th and Date streets. (480) 644-3428.
Mesa Southwest Museum Calendar of Events
Through April 18: "Turtles: Origins to World Domination"
Saturday to April 18: "A T-rex Named Sue"
Jan. 29-31: Dr. Darin Croft lectures on Sue
Jan. 30 to April 16: Family Fun with Sue
Feb. 4: Museum curators lead walks through the museum’s Charles R. Knight mural collection
Feb. 6: Lecture on the art of Charles R. Knight
Feb. 10: Brown Bag Lecture Series event on Route 66
Feb. 14: Turtle Care Fair
Feb. 19: Stories and songs about dinosaurs
Feb. 21: Feeding Frenzy with turtles and tortoises
Feb. 22, March 22, April 26:
"The Cretaceous Cabaret" — singing, dancing "dinosaurs" in a theatrical performance