Better Know a Museum: Ray Alf

Hey there every peoples…

Same old story. Meant to post this a while ago but have been very busy with doctor appointments, field trips, and something most terrible. On Thursday our beloved black lab Lucy, at only 3 ½ years old, died of a heart attack. Just like that. Her passing has been extremely difficult to bear. I am trying to take my mind off it but it haunts me relentlessly. But that doesn’t mean you guys shouldn’t get your regular dose of ramblings. So here we go.

Ray Alf was a teacher at the Webb School of California in Claremont, a town on the fringe of Los Angeles. A few years after he started he stumbled across a fossil horse jaw in a store in Claremont Village. The shopkeeper informed him that the jaw was found in Barstow, which lies about 80 miles to the northeast. So Ray gathered some students and went hunting for fossils in the beautifully sculpted badlands of Barstow’s Rainbow Basin. Then in 1936 his student Bill Webb discovered a pig-like skull. Ray took the skull to renowned paleontologist Chester Stock who identified it as a new species of peccary. This discovery inspired a lifelong passion for paleontology in Ray Alf. From there, Ray took his students to Nebraska to look for more fossils. Later he went to the University of Colorado to get his teaching degree. After that he returned to Webb Schools and added paleontology to his curriculum. Every summer he took students on “Peccary Trips”, forays into fossil rich areas of western North America named after that iconic discovery in Barstow. His student’s discoveries swelled with each trip, and soon the basement of the library became Ray’s museums where he taught students and gave public tours. But as with any museum it eventually outgrew its space. So in 1968, a permanent building was erected to house Ray’s Museum.

Today we know it as the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology. Still occupying that original permanent space, the museum now houses two exhibit galleries and over 80,000 specimens in its collections. What sets the museum apart is not only its location (the only paleontology museum on a high school campus. Hell, it’s the only museum I know of on a high school campus) but also the source of its collections: over 90% of the specimens in the museum’s keeping were found by Webb students and alumni on peccary trips. Sure it hasn’t produced as impressive a collection as Los Angeles or the Smithsonian or the American Museum. But for student work, I’d say it’s damn impressive!

The museum is divided into two halls: The Hall of Footprints and the Hall of Life. The Hall of Footprints was renovated in 2002 and is the only full size gallery I know of devoted to fossil footprints. I have never been awed by fossil footprints too much since they are always presented the same way: most exhibits usually just have one or two footprint specimens just stuck in an exhibit with the other specimens (and most of the time its dinosaur tracks). But having a display where the footprints take center stage somehow makes them more exciting. And that is probably also due to the fact that the Alf Museum has such a wide variety of tracks. The museum houses over 1000 trackway and footprint specimens from all over North America. The tracks were made by such critters as: dinosaurs, Permian reptiles, spiders, cats, giant camels, mastodons, and even creodonts. But the jewel of the museum’s footprint collection is a bear dog trackway from Barstow:

Trackway of Amphicyon found in Barstow by Ray Alf and students back in the 60's

Footprint of a giant cemel from the Mojave Desert

I wish the Hall of Life was as exciting as the exhibit downstairs. Don’t get me wrong, they have loads of great fossils. It’s just there doesn’t seem to be any overreaching theme other than a journey through the history of life. They just have different fossils on display with little connectivity. But that flaw doesn’t matter now since they are getting ready to renovate it. They meant to do that earlier this year but they hit a few stumbling blocks in their funding. Nonetheless they plan to start spring next year. And what they have now is still pretty cool. They have a brontothere bonebed recreated just as they found it, many superb specimens from Barstow, a giant alligator skull, and much more. I did find the dinosaur section a bit weak though. It’s mostly made up of casts with a few real specimens. When they renovate I hope that they will include more original material collected by the students. Like all that stuff they are finding in Utah! Right now it’s just a cast of their famous Gryposaurus skull and some hadrosaur foot bones. How about throwing in some of those tyrannosaur bones you guys found. And I know that baby hadrosaur is too recent of a discovery to make it in, but will it be in the exhibit in the future? And surely you guys have some other great dinosaur stuff you can show us.

A cast of the musuem's famous hadrosaur skull, Gryposaurus monumentensis

Upper jaws of Megahippus, a large three-toed horse from Barstow

A cast of the peccary skull that started it all!

Well the Ray Alf Museum must be doing something right since I keep going back. No joke, since I first visited in 2007 I have been making a yearly pilgrimage there. I guess maybe it’s the wonderful fossils, the huge display of footprints, and the fact I feel like it’s where I should have gone to high school. If I did, then high school wouldn’t have been a part of my life that I try so hard to purge from my memory. Nonetheless it’s a great little museum and I encourage you to stop by whenever you’re in southern California.

Till next time.

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