Friday, June 14, 2013

The American Rattlesnake Museum

Almost last but certainly not least on our itinerary was the International Rattlesnake Museum, nestled in Old Town Albuquerque. As a lifelong lover of all things reptilian, I had been excited to get there since I paid my trip deposit. We all gathered there right as the doors were about to open. The owner hadn’t even let out the resident rescued tortoises that lived in a pen out in the front. After the obligatory group shot, we got a quick introduction and were turned loose. 
Bob in his natural habitat.
The owner and operator of the museum, Bob Myers, has been running this place for over 20 years, and was one of the friendliest and most enthusiastic people we met out of all our “backstage” museum contacts. Despite caring for, raising, and breeding hundreds of snakes and other scaly creatures for several decades, he has only been bitten once! We were turned loose on the museum for a while before a group presentation we got all for ourselves.
            The museum itself is in a location half the size it ought to be, and is packed to the brim with all manner of reptiles, many alive, but also in art, memorabilia, and history. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, everything was well laid out, informative, and certainly interesting. I appreciated the dedication to not just displaying live animals but also showing their relationship with us in context. Additionally, there was a heavy focus on treating the public misperception of rattlesnakes and providing education for both children and adults. A personal high point of the displays was an entire series of shelves (a sizable exhibit in a museum of this scale) dedicated to the late Steve Irwin, who was a childhood hero of mine.

A sample of the diverse collection of herpetological media on display.

Crikey, that's a lot of stuff!
 While we didn’t end up visiting many animal-related places on our trip, this one left the best impression by far. The museum has 34 varieties of rattlesnake, more than many of the nation’s largest zoos’ collections combined. Bob is known for raising rarer breeds of rattlesnakes, as well as having uniquely colored specimens—and the museum is considered a resource for other institutions around the country. Bob’s care isn’t limited to snakes though; lizards, insects, and even a snapping turtle we witnessed in mid-lunchtime all live on display, and there are many more backstage.
You should see the ones in Maryland...
The New Mexico state lizard, the whiptail, aka "little velociraptor"

The animals looked clean and healthy, and as Bob talked to us about running the museum, he definitely seemed experienced and competent—a worthy caretaker and spokesman for these often maligned creatures.

The high point of the discussion was definitely the ball python handling, where even some of the less-brave of the group ended up getting to play with the friendly snake. Eventually, I had to let someone else have a turn with her, though.
Sadly, despite Rod bonding quite well with our python friend, my requests for a new trip mascot were denied.
 My only complaint with our tour was that we had to cut it short because Bob was so enthusiastic in teaching us. While we didn’t really see many other visitors interact with the museum (as we literally took up most of the space), I can imagine that Bob is more than good at talking to children.  
One of the best museum design ideas we saw on the whole trip. Simple but effective.
Overall, this was a trip highlight for me. I am impressed with how well the museum seems to be doing, despite its size and relative obscurity. The only improvements I can think to offer are to expand, and to keep doing what they’re doing. All that money I spent at the gift shop felt totally worth it. At the end, we all received a “Certificate of Bravery,” that patrons receive for entering the museum. While I never had any qualms about going in, it was a nice little way to end a great visit. I’d highly recommend everyone, even those ophidiophobes out there, to “slither on by” this fantastic place. 

And now, have a snake montage.

Hello there, Grumpy Cat--I mean, Diamondback.
Why sssssso sssssseriousssss?

Contrary to popular belief, sidewinders can, in fact, move in other directions.
A rare melanistic rattlesnake, one of Bob's many oddities.
No rattle? No problem.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Petroglyph National Monument

Map of Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument is a site which preserves the designs and symbols carved into volcanic rock, first by the Native Americans, and later Spanish settlers between 400 and 700 years ago. Our group was supposed to visit Petroglyph in the afternoon, and it was already a very hot day. When given the chance, many of the people on the Study Tour opted to stay inside and go to the Balloon Museum, leaving the brave few to explore the volcanic landscape of Petroglyph National Monument.

We stopped first at the Visitor Center, where we were able to receive park and trail information. The Visitor Center was small, and fit well with the surrounding landscape. It had some plaques which highlighted a number of facts and stories about the local culture and the history of the park. Inside was just enough space for a small museum display with a gift shop. Next to the front desk, was a large, interactive touch-screen where we could view the history and other sorts of information concerning Petroglyph National Monument. There was also a large portrait of some of the landscape, complete with labels and situated above a set of pull-out drawers, containing various facsimiles of in situ artifacts associated with both the Native Americans and the Spanish. The artifacts were in situ because they were in relation to other objects found, but were removed from the entire setting where they were from originally (Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998: 19).

Inside of the Visitor Center, showing the gift shop and museum small museum
display which includes both in situ facsimile artifacts and an interactive display.

We hiked the Rinconada Canyon trail, a 2.2 mile round trip just a mile south of the Visitor Center. We left the van, taking careful note that the parking lot closed at 5:00 PM, and that vehicles left there would be towed at the owner’s expense. The trails, however, are open from sunrise to sunset, so to enjoy sunset at Petroglyph, one would need to park at the visitor center and walk. At the trail head was a restroom and signs indicating that this trail was friendly for pets, as long as they were on a leash.

Rinconada Canyon had been roasting in the sun for hours by the time we began our hike, so the heat of the day was all around us. According to the information given at the head of the trail, this was an Easy to Moderate hike, so it would not be too taxing in that regard. All we needed to do was make sure that we had plenty of water, because there were no water fountains available, except at the Visitor Center.

Looking from Rinconada Canyon back towards Albuquerque. 
Information on the Rinconada Canyon trail at the head.
It is sad that this type of sign is sometimes ignored.

We set off on the trail which was made up mostly of sand and dirt. On all sides were volcanic rocks and desert plants. When we looked up at the sides of the canyon, we could see various Petroglyphs carved into the volcanic rock, some elaborate designs and others simplistic, but all interesting, both historically and culturally.

Petroglyph National Monument was a beautiful place to explore, and could be categorized as an "unmodified museum" in that everything within the boundaries of the National Monument have been (at least in theory) left undisturbed (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998: 131).

These pictures are of petroglyphs from the Rinconada Canyon Trail, including both Native American and Spanish designs. The photograph on the left is of various members of our group looking at some petroglyphs.

There were a couple of things that would have made this a better experience. The trail is vaguely marked at best with occasional rocks marking the boundaries of the trail, so it could be difficult to see where the trail led at times. There were occasional arrows indicating which direction that we had to go, and the canyon walls which were an obvious indicator that we would be going off-trail. A more distinct trail boundary might be useful because it would not only keep people on track, but would enforce the fact that people should not go off the trail and add their own petroglyphs to this National Monument.

Making it more clear at the Visitor Center that there would be a lack of water at the trail heads would guarantee that people would bring enough water with them to said trails. Some people in our group were taken by surprise that there was no water fountain at the trail head, which we had become accustomed to at other National Monuments and National Parks that we visited on this tour.

Another slightly disappointing part about Petroglyph was that it was obvious that people had disregarded the notices for the protection of the petroglyphs, leaving their own marks behind on the volcanic rock. Again, making the boundaries between what is the trail and what is not may help to dissuade this.

Over all, I think that as a group, we had a good experience. It was hot, and we must have dumped gallons of sand from our shoes at trail’s end, but being outside and connecting with the history and culture of Albuquerque was worth it.
To cap off our experience, we saw a Roadrunner!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Bandelier National Momument

     Bandelier National Momument is the first national momument we visited in this trip. Thus, we got our first idea of what is a national momument from there. As a national momument, Bandelier National Momument preserves valuable natural and cultural resources for the public. Also, it serves ongoing scientific research. Archeaologists keep studying about Bandelier's human history back for over 10,000 years. 
    During our tour in the Bandelier National Momument, we could see the research results from site to site. All sites are marked on the Main Loop Trail Map. Tourists can either buy a map with one dollar or rent one for free from the front desk. Most of the class got free maps and turned them back when we left. I like this convenient service a lot.

    Bandelier's human history can be back forward to 10,000 years ago. The primary spots in Bandelier National Momument are the remain residence of acient Pueblo people. Ancestral Pueblo people were a hunter-gathering community. They built permanent settlements there and lived until 1550 CE. During our trip, we saw a lot of amazing house remains such as Long House which was a two or three story structure.
    Along with the trail, there were many landders which were imitated according to the history so visitor can experience the ancient life style. My most unforgettable memory in the Bandelier National Momument is the lannder experience. Eight of us climbed high lanndersand got a very good view from the top.
    The only thing I hope the park can improve is that the spots should be written clearly. I followed the map but always found that I had passed some important spots because there was no signs. I hope the Bandelier National Momument can add some signs and explaination of the spot so that visitors can learn about the history of culture of Bandelier.
    Overall, I think everyone enjoyed the visit in the Bandelier National Momument with a study of ancient Pueblo people's houses and the lannder adventure. Also, the landscape of the national park was beautiful because we enjoyed both desert view and forest view.

Zion National Park

Zion national park is a classic example of a national park showcasing America’s natural beauty. When you drive into the park you are immediately surrounded on all sides by the canyon wall. To reduce the congestion of traffic as well as the environmental impact, the park employed a free shuttle system to take visitors to the various hiking trails and other attractions in the park. While often crowded, the shuttles did arrive quite quickly and frequently, about every 10 minutes. However, I would hope that during their peak season in the summer they would use more shuttles, as even during this off season, we had to squeeze in and stand on almost every trip. While on the shuttle, a voice over played that gave the history of the park and told you about the different landmarks on the way, which was a great way to both make the trip more enjoyable, and to give information to visitors in a direct way.

The main activity at the parks seemed to be the various hiking trails that allowed you to see many of the natural wonders of the park. The park had very clear information about each of the trails including the level of difficulty, what one could expect to see on the trail, total length, and an approximation of the time it would take to complete. When speaking of the level of difficulty, very specific information was given including, steepness of the trail, possibility of drop offs, and whether the road was paved or not. This information was available on the park map, on the park newspaper, in the visitor center, and on the shuttles. To make the park more accessible to all visitors, a select number of trails were flat and paved, making them wheelchair and bike accessible. The shuttles also could accommodate wheelchairs and at least 2 bikes.

The shuttle gave instructions as to how to get to each of the various hiking trails from the each of the stops, which was very helpful for navigating the park. The trails themselves were well labeled and had clear signs telling you where to go, which was very helpful. The more dangerous trails (including angels landing) had warning about what to expect before you got to the actual trail, so no one was taken by surprise.  I hiked the Angels landing trail which was indeed very steep and strenuous, but had a very clear warning posted at the beginning of the trail. The trails themselves appeared to be well maintained, and had little to no debri that blocked hikers, and areas were paved when needed to reduce erosion. The Angel’s Landing trail even had a chain you could use for balance at the more dangerous sections as well as compost bathrooms located about halfway up for visitors to use.

I also visited the Zion Human History Museum, accessible via walking or the shuttles. When I first entered the museum, I was surprised by how small it was considering how the building looked on the outside. The museum had 4 “themes” that organized the museum: water, plants, animals, and humans. Each of these “themes” was house inside a small octagonal room about 10 feet in diameter. Inside there were artifacts in glass cases on one wall and plaques and photographs on the other, usually having to do with that theme. However some objects seemed out of place, and “human” artifacts were found in all fours areas. However the information given was interesting and covered both ancient and modern history, though I could have used more. Overall, the space outside the four “rooms” was not being used effectively, or indeed at all, making the museum feel very empty.

Overall, I think much more could have been done with the museum, as there website allowed me to find out the vast number of artifacts they have in there collection, with very few on display. Although the division into four themes was an original way to organize, I believe they limited the amount of actual used space. Part of the limits of this museum might be due to the fact that most people coming to Zion come for the nature, not the human history, and this museum might not be high on the park’s priorities.

The visitor center as well was rather sparse, including only a few topographical maps and displays and a few photos. However, outside the visitor center, there were many displays including life size sculptures of various wildlife, with fun facts about each one on a flip up plaque, all at kid eye level and near the shuttle stop to keep people entertained during their wait. The majority of the space seemed to be used for the very large gift shop. While I understand the need to pull in revenue for the park, especially considering the many cuts being made to the park service, I believe that more of the visitor center’s resources should be put towards education and improving the informational displays.

Petrified Forest

We were into the second week of our whirlwind tour of the southwest when we arrived at the Petrified Forest National Part on May 21st. After lunch at a deceptively labeled 'museum' (in truth, a curio-shop where one can legally buy petrified wood and other souvenirs) just outside of the park, we passed through the south gates and made our first stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum. Acting as a hub for several short yet impressive trail loops, the visitor's center at this location (one of several throughout the park) also houses facilities such as restrooms and water fountains, as well as a small exhibit on the site during the Triassic period onwards, when the dinosaurs lived, and the logs which give the museum its name (more on those in a moment) are estimated to have been deposited. The museum is well constructed, using a combination of in-situ aspects such as a diorama, and in-context aspects such as comparisons between different types of dinosaurs to talk about the animals which at one point inhabited the land. It is worth noting, however, that the exhibit is very wordy, much more so than many kids would likely have patience for. Seeing as children are the group most easily enraptured by the dinosaurs in question, I would suggest toning down the amount and complexity of the text to make it easier for them to understand.
Moving outside the center, we followed the short Giant Logs trail, which showcases some of the biggest logs of petrified wood in the park. Although there are no openly interpretive signs along the trail, there are markers are a number of locations, corresponding to a trail guide available inside the center. The trail was short and easy, and the logs along its path – giant pieces of driftwood from a bygone age, which were buried and turned to stone by the soil around them – are definitely worth the time to see. Simply knowing that the rocks in question were once wood millions of years ago is impressive enough, but the dazzling array of colors in some of the cross-sections is truly breathtaking.
Finished with our walk around the trail, we moved on north in the park, to the Puerco Pueblo stop. Rather than focusing on the petrified wood of the park, the stop is a look at former human habitation of the park, namely a large Pueblo built around 1250, the remains of which are illustrated above ground by a 'romantic ruin', a reconstruction of the foundation around a foot high to show the size of the building. The stop is also decorated with petroglyphs, including some which are believed to have been used to mark the change in seasons.

Finally, after the Pueblo, we moved on to our final stop, the main Painted Desert Visitor's Center at the north end of the park. We spent a short time browsing the exhibits and gift shop in the center (of particular interest was a fake petrified log with interactive drawers containing small exhibits, something significantly more kid-friendly than the exhibits on the other end of the park), before being taken into the back and given a tour of the labs by one of the museum's staff, a Preparator who works with fossils. This was an interesting – and sadly rare – look at the park's role as a research institution. On the tour we saw the collections of the park, as well as the kind of work that goes into conserving them and preparing them for research. The park houses around 90 Type Specimens – the scientific term for the first confirmed example of a new species found. In addition to fossils, they also house archaeological collections, both of which are available to scholars who wish to research them.
A small piece of their collections.
Although the inevitable draw of Petrified Forest National Park is likely to remain the beauty of the wood-turned-stone which the park is named after, the fossils and archaeological collections of the area deserve attention too. It would be nice to see some more attention to the park's role as a research institution in their exhibits, as well as slightly more kid-friendly amounts of text, but overall the park is doing a quality job in its mission to preserve the heritage of the petrified forest, its fossils, and the Native American remains of the Painted Desert, and educate the public about the same areas.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Albuquerque Aquarium

We arrived at the Albuquerque Aquarium after leisurely spending our morning in the botanic garden just across the bio park, and being freshly fed at the Shark Reef Café. After enjoying our lunch—observing sharks, tuna, stingrays, and the crowd favorite sea turtle in the tank adjoining to the café’s dining room—we were ready and eager to see everything the aquarium had to offer.
The initial room of the aquarium had a variety of exhibits relating to the Gulf of Mexico—from the harmful invasive species found there to the seafood industry that surrounds it.  The “collections” included both real and replica animals—and two live seagulls flying around! There were also both closed in glass tanks and tanks tat were open at the top for visitors to look both through and down on, as long as they don’t touch the water!
There was even a replica of a typical Gulf shrimping boat (I was hoping it would be named Jenny) located outside in the pseudo harbor. This relates to Albuquerque because the Rio Grande, which runs but feet from the bio park heads east and drains into the Gulf.
After the first room, visitors went through a darker tunnel lined with labeled replica fish so they could point them out in the upcoming exhibits—the Atlantic and Pacific Coral Reef tanks. The two biggest tanks in the building, located in these sections, included the usual universal aquarium experience that one would expect.
While the Atlantic section had a large tank viewable from one side, the Pacific section included a tunnel tank in addition to a regular one like in the Atlantic. In this last section of the aquarium there was also smaller tanks for individual species too small to be displayed in the larger tanks. These species included jellyfish, seahorses, and starfish.
Other, more unique exhibits, included information on the harmful effects of things like oil spills, pollution, and global warming on the world’s oceans and its wildlife. These educational bits were incorporated right in with the animal displays, so the idea was very effective. It was nice to see the aquarium take a proactive and educational stance on marine life, rather than just preserving and displaying them for the public.
A popular part of the aquarium was the interactive section in which visitors could pet stingrays under the supervision of a trained staff member. Speaking of aquarium-goers, there were guests of all ages and demographics in attendance during out visit. We observed young people like us, older couples, full families, etc. An aquarium is one type of museum that easily appeals to mostly everyone, so the range of people was expected. This appealed to aquarium-goers of all ages, and was a great addition to the standard you-can-only-get-so-close fish tanks. Another unique feature within the Pacific section was a magnified seating area within perfect view of the final large shark tank. This feature gave the visitors a chance to sit down and enjoy the exhibit without standing in someone's way or blocking a picture. It was very popular--within our group as well!
Besides the interactive portion, there were no tours available or needed. All the exhibits were fairly straightforward and didn't leave much up for interpretation unlike the other museums we had visited. . Though the aquarium was a little smaller than most of us were expecting, it was a nice break from our usual suspect museums on the trip and a great aspect of the Albuquerque Bio Park. As a stand-alone aquarium, it may not live up to expectations of most aquatic life lovers, but it definitely played its role well alongside the botanic garden, zoo, and Tingley Beach.

Some more photos...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The John Wesley Powell Museum

On the third day of our trip to the Southwest, we stopped in Page, Arizona on the way to Zion National Park. Page, Arizona is a town that is beautifully situated surrounded by canyons and near Lake Powell. This lake was named after John Wesley Powell and in town stands a museum that is dedicated to sharing the mission and work of John Wesley Powell, a man who led expeditions down the Colorado River studying plant and animal life and geology during the expeditions.

The Powell Museum is quaint and homey with many interesting artifacts from the area and relating to expeditions of the Colorado River. The exhibits in the museum are about the history of the Colorado River expeditions, geology and paleontology of the area, history of the native peoples of the area and also the history of Page, Arizona.

Our visit to The Powell Museum was brief, but very interesting. I went with the first group and we were taken on a tour of the museum. A volunteer led our group backwards through the museum so that the other half of our group could start at the front. The volunteer was obviously very passionate about the museum and enthusiastic about sharing the artifacts in the museum with us. He also shared some more personal information, including information about why he volunteers and how he used to work at the museum. Our tour guide explained to us that we were going backwards through the museum and that the exhibits might seem random. In the end, I think most of our group agreed with him.

We started in the City of Page exhibit, which mostly included black and white pictures of the growth of the city. Our guide explained that since the city of Page helps fund the museum, they had to have an exhibit about the city and the history of it. From there we went into an exhibit about the paleontology in the area. There were rock slabs with dinosaur tracks in them and bones of ancient reptiles throughout the room. Our guide was extremely enthusiastic about this room and it was clear how interested he was in paleontology. He even explained how he helped discover one of the sets of tracks and that dinosaur tracks could be found anywhere around the city of Page. The next exhibit was a Navajo weaving exhibit that included some of the more beautiful examples of Navajo weaving that we saw our entire trip. Our guide was able to show us Navajo symbols in the weaving that really brought the art to life.

Outside of this exhibit was an area of the museum dedicated to the Anasazi people that used to inhabit the region. A cool interactive here allowed people to use tools that these people would have used to grind corn. Our group ended up spending a lot of time at this interactive, experiencing just how difficult it was for these people to survive. After this exhibit was some examples of geology from the area, which seemed almost like it was randomly added to the museum. From there we continued to the exhibit about expeditions down the colorado which was very interesting. Our tour ended at two old dioramas about expeditions on the Colorado river. Having a guide here was helpful because he was able to explain how the dioramas themselves are historic.

Overall, my experience in The John Wesley Powell Museum was very interesting. There was a lot of very interesting information and artifacts in this small museum. Our guide was very helpful in connecting us to the museum and explaining the mission of The Powell Museum. I think that the museum needed more of a flow between exhibits in order to pull all of the information together. Even though our visit was brief, we were able to learn a lot about the Colorado Plateau and the history of the area by visiting The Powell Museum.

                                                                                                City of Page exhibit.
                                                                               Examples of Navajo weaving.
                                                                Examples of dinosaur bones in The Powell Museum.
                                                                                            Geology exhibit.
                                                                Boat from an early expedition down the Colorado River.
                                                                                         Colorado expeditions exhibit.
                                                                        One of the two historic dioramas in the museum.