Getting to Know Local Dinosaur Sites: The Museums of Western Colorado

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the latest installment of “Getting to Know Local Dinosaur Sites”. This interview is going to be a little different, so far I have only been able to cover sites in my home state of Utah, but this week we will be looking at the Museums of Western Colorado. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Julia B. McHugh, Ph.D. Curator of Paleontology for the Museums of Western Colorado.

Jurassic Files: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do here?

Julia McHugh: “I am a vertebrate paleontologist and the current curator of paleontology at the Museums of Western Colorado; I also teach paleontology undergraduate courses at Colorado Mesa University. My expertise includes phylogenetics, paleohistology, paleoecological interactions, and specifically the effects of large environmental disturbances on ancient life (such as mass extinctions). I run the museum’s paleontology program at the Dinosaur Journey facility, manage collections, conduct research, plan and lead field work expeditions, run our public dinosaur dig program, oversee volunteers and the preparation lab, design and install exhibits, and develop coursework at the college level.”

JF: Could you give us a little history of the museum and the area?

JM: “The Museum of Western Colorado is the largest multi-disciplinary museum between Salt Lake City and Denver. Over the past fifty years it has grown to include three major museum facilities, four active outdoor paleontology sites, an educational center, and a research library and archives. In 1971, the museum became accredited by the American Association of Museums (AAM). Dinosaur Journey is a dynamic facility showcasing the plants and animals common to the area 150 million years ago. Exhibits include articulated skeletons, robotic dinosaurs, fossils, hands-on activities, and a working paleontology laboratory. It also serves as a repository for national institutions such as the Bureau of Land Management, and The Carnegie and Smithsonian Museums. Outdoor paleontology areas are operated by the museum under a signed cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to co-manage four outdoor sites. These sites include the Mygatt-Moore Quarry, Dinosaur Hill, The Fruita Paleontological Area, and Riggs Hill (the Brachiosaurus skeleton found at this site in 1900 has been a popular exhibit in the Field Museum in Chicago for many decades). In addition, the museum is the repository for all cultural and fossil material found on BLM-administered land. For information on the history of paleontology in our area, you can watch our recent documentary, Dinosaurs of the Western Slope, on the Museums of Western Colorado Youtube channel.”

JF: So why dinosaurs? What about them makes them more popular than say, ice age fossils?

JM: “Dinosaurs have always captured the imagination of the public in a way no other extinct creature has ever done. The reason for this is their size, grandeur, and strangeness. Nothing on Earth today looks quite like a Stegosaurus or shakes the ground like a sauropod. Their bizarre biology will continue to capture the imaginations of the public for centuries to come.”

JF: What are some of the most common questions you get?

JM: “One of the most common questions I get at the museum is “are these real bones”? Of course, that’s the point of a museum, to see the real thing. I think in this digital age, people are so used to seeing imitations or mock-ups, that it can be surreal to see and touch real fossil bones. We have numerous real fossil bones on display for just that purpose – to let children run their fingers over bite marks on a giant bone and feel the power of a long-gone predator’s teeth. We don’t hide all of our fossils behind Plexiglas; we encourage the public to learn more than just their eyes.”

JF: What are some of the things that visitors can look forward to when they come visit?

JM: “Exhibits at our museum are more interactive than those at larger, big city institutions. Some of the highlights in our exhibit hall include animatronic dinosaurs that roar and come to life with the touch of a button, real fossils and tracks – many of which are touchable exhibits, an earthquake simulator, cast skeletons, a dig pit with real bones, and each summer we host temporary traveling exhibits. Past travelling exhibits have included Titanoboa: monster snake, Hatching the Past: nesting with dinosaurs, and Tyrannosaurus rex and the end of the “Age of Dinosaurs”.”

JF: Anything new that visitors should know about?

JM: “Our upcoming summer 2018 exhibit will be “Horns and Frills” – a look at the display structures of ceratopsian dinosaurs and their functions. Also, the 2018 schedule for our popular public dinosaur dig program will be available later this fall at Want to be a paleontologist for a day? We can hook you up.”

JF: Do you have an on site paleontology lab? If so what kind of work are they doing?

JM: “Yes. We have a large paleontology lab where bones excavated on museum expeditions are prepared in view of the visiting public. Visitors can watch our volunteer preparators working on fossil bones and teeth through lab windows Monday-Thursday.”

JF: O.K., last question. What is your Favorite Dinosaur?

JM: “Fav. Herbivore = Apatosaurus / Fav. Carnivore = Allosaurus”

The Museum is located at 550 Jurassic Court Fruita, CO 81521, and the operating hours of the museum are as follows. Summer Hours, May 1 – September 30, 7 days a week, 9 am to 5 pm. Winter Hours October 1 – April 30, Mon – Sat  10 am to 4 pm, Sun  Noon to 4 pm. All sites are closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition sites may close for emergencies. Please call to confirm status. (970) 858-7282. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for children, $25 for immediate family groups (up to 6 people), and Free to members. I cannot wait to take my trip out there over the spring to see all of the amazing exhibits, and I suggest you all do the same!


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