Home to our heritageAug 31, 2016 01:23PM ● By Carrie Kellerby
“Mesa County has a lot to be proud of,” said Peter Booth, executive director of the Museums of Western Colorado. “This is the largest multi-disciplinary museum on the Western Slope. It’s because of the community’s support that we are as successful as we are. ”
Speaking of success, the museum has celebrated over five decades of it, having celebrated its 50th anniversary in May.
Booth went on to say that the value of an institution like the museum, also known by locals as Museum of the West, is directly linked to its relationship with the community.
“This venue helps create an important sense of identity, and self-awareness,” he said, “but not just for the people who grew up here, for newcomers, too.”
And that requires seeing the big picture, maintaining diversified offerings, and anticipating the future needs of the population it serves.
Timeline of growth
During the course of its history, the museum has seen some changes. Plans for a museum began in 1949, but didn’t get off the ground until the opening of the Museum of Arts and Sciences in the former Whitman School in 1966. The museum earned its first accreditation in 1971 by the American Alliance of Museums—the second museum in Colorado to qualify for this professional certification. This success was capped in 2009 when the museum received its fourth accreditation, placing it in the top 1 percent of museums nationwide.
In 1980, the museum acquired Cross Orchards through a community fundraising effort. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and now includes a restored farm and several other exhibits, including the largest collection of rolling stock for the historic Uintah Railroad.
In the 1980s, the museum also entered into a collaborative agreement with the Bureau of Land Management to co-manage the Rabbit Valley Natural Research Area. The Trail Through Time, a 1.5-mile interpretive walking trail, was one of the results of that relationship. Dinosaur Hill near Fruita and the Fruita Paleontological Area is also co-managed by the museum and the BLM. The museum also owns Riggs Hill, where Elmer S. Riggs found Brachiosaurus remains in 1900.
Another momentous expansion took place in the 1980s when the museum opened Dinosaur Valley on Main Street. This popular attraction moved to Fruita in 2000 after the museum acquired the former Dinosaur Discovery Center, and the new site was rechristened Dinosaur Journey. Today this interactive museum features fossils of real dinosaurs, including Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, and the largest Triceratops skull known to exist. There are also robotic reconstructions of many other dinosaurs, as well as interactive displays, a working laboratory, a collections room for scientific research, a library, and a simulated earthquake ride.
Partnerships in the 21st century
The 21st century started with another major move for the museum. In 2000, the original Museum of the West moved to the newly renovated C.D. Smith Warehouse at Fifth Street and Ute Avenue. This site houses permanent exhibits pertaining to the history of Western Colorado, space for traveling exhibits, the museum’s administrative offices, and the Sterling T. Smith Observation Tower. Highlights of the permanent exhibits include Fremont and Ute art, old west firearms, and a 1958 Cessna from Walker Field. This location is also home to the Loyd Files Research Library, a unique archive of the region’s rich cultural and natural history, including the Mesa County Oral History Project, the largest of its type in the state.
In 2005, the Western Investigations Team (WIT) began as a cooperative venture between the museum and Colorado Mesa University to use history, archeology and all forms of science to solve mysteries of the region’s past. WIT Director David Baily and his team worked on the case of famous cannibal Alferd Packer, proving that he was not a murderer. Their astonishing investigation was featured on a History Channel documentary in 2005.
Home to our heritage
Currently, over 100,000 people participate in the museum’s various programs and facilities, making it the third largest tourist attraction in Mesa County. As Booth pointed out, tourism is a part of the continuing vitality and viability of the region and the museum’s success is also the community’s success. If it wasn’t for the museums, 3,000 oral history interviews wouldn’t exist, its historic artifacts would probably be in Denver, and the archeological and paleontological finds would either be in Cortez, Denver or Salt Lake City.
“Our heritage would not belong to us. It would belong to someone else,” Booth said.
But Booth is not complacent about the museum’s achievements. He has hopes for the future, including the expansion of Dinosaur Journey’s heritage component to meet the growing draw of visitors to the Fruita area, and the development of the museum’s online resources for research and information. The Museum of the West is committed to its mission to serve the Western Slope community and looks forward to a future that could be as bright as its past.
For more information about the Two Rivers Chautauqua, or the many programs and services offered by the museum, call 242-0971 or visit www.museumofwesternco.com. ν
Photos courtesy of the Museum of Western Colorado