by Antonette Manabat
photography by Sylvia Castellanos
Eager minds leap ahead of short steps. A pack of children pour through a set of doors, impatient to meet Freddie, Marge, Betsy, Harold, Richard and Marvin in the “Hall of Life.” An intriguing set of stairs lead down into a dark unknown. “Hall of Footprints – Tracks to the Past,” promises a nearby sign. There, students look down and see, next to their foot, a print belonging to a creature that once dominated the planet. Here they can face Freddie and the gang: six dinosaur skulls.
One thing is clear now: you are in their world. Inside the world of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, hidden at the heart of the Webb Schools in Claremont, 70,000 fossils, dinosaur skeletons and the world’s largest collection of fossilized footprints await discovery.
The exploration starts with the interactive exhibits that allow children, to go beyond the display case. With rubber stamps, children take their own impressions of the ancient footprints. They also reach fist-first into drawers filled with fossils. “We want to bring science to life, to experience and explore it on different levels,” explains Heather Moffat, director of education.
Eerie shrieks and other sounds scream from the “Friendly or Fierce” exhibit, which allows children to recreate dinosaur sounds. “The first kid who tries that always jumps back,” Cathy Sanders, assistant outreach coordinator, laughs. In “Dig Pit,” children have their own adventure digging through rocks to find fossils. “With hands-on experience, students get to discover what science is really about,” Moffat says. “Science tells a story; by finding fossils, I can reconstruct what the world was like millions of years ago.” As children yell, “I found something!” to their parents, more jump into the pit, eager to make their own discovery. “If you can’t have fun with the kids, they might as well be back at school behind their desk,” Linda Petrone, museum outreach coordinator, says.
More than just a lifeless collection of bones, the museum is a living part of the Webb School. All incoming freshmen at Webb take a Paleontology class. Here, they are introduced to the science of collecting and preserving the fossil record, the history of their museum and the man that started it all: Raymond M. Alf. A math and science teacher at Webb, Alf took his students in the early 1930s to search for fossils near Barstow, Calif. In 1937, Alf and student Bill Webb unearthed a jaw and skull. It turned out to be a new species of fossilized pig. Discovering the skull fueled future trips to hunt fossils and student enthusiasm for paleontology grew.
Donald Lofgren, director of the museum, remembers Alf, his neighbor and friend, as an inspiring and devoted man. “His discovery inspired him to become a paleontologist,” Lofgren asserts. “It went from a hobby to a career.” Every inch of the museum is devoted to the achievement, discoveries and passion of Alf, his students and Webb faculty, who together collected more than 95 percent of the fossils.
Already distinguished as the only paleontology museum in the world located on a high school campus, the museum became the first high school museum accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1998. Of the estimated 16,000 museums in the nation, approximately 750 are accredited by the organization. “People recognize that we are a professional, accredited institution,” Lofgren maintains. “It’s not easy to do; otherwise everyone would.”
In 1937, the museum opened inauspiciously in a library basement. Its collection grew, and the current building on the Webb campus was constructed in 1968. Inside the museum, a glass display honors Alf, to whom the facility is dedicated. “To teach is to influence, and influence never dies,” it quotes Alf. This philosophy lies at the heart of Alf’s work, accomplishments and awards. And of course, it is instilled in his students. Lofgren explained that Alf was a dynamic teacher in the classroom who interacted and touched a great number of students and staff. “He referred to former students as ‘the boys,’ even if they were 50.” Lofgren recalls. Indeed, Alf developed close bonds with his students. Lofgren reminisces fondly about the Thursday afternoon talks they ritually held. Although Alf was Lofgren’s mentor, he found his interest in paleontology on his own. “I love the treasure hunting and the scientific detective aspect,” explains Lofgren. “You never know what you’re going to find.”
While students are regular visitors, the Alf Museum welcomes the community. Patrons not only learn about the past, but become a part of it. Education is mixed with entertainment—exhibits illustrate how fossils are collected and preserved—in the way only an unforgettable teacher with an immortal passion could accomplish.
Students and faculty today continue that passion. They take fossil collecting trips each academic year to Barstow or local areas. Interested students at Webb can take an advanced honors course in paleontology, which allows them to learn collection techniques and work with discoveries in the museum’s fossil preparation lab. At their disposal: the 99 percent of the collection never on display.
For the children face-to-face with Freddie, Marge, Betsy, Harold, Richard and Marvin, there is little patience for waiting to ask questions. They learn that the skulls belonged to a species called Brontotherium, and the origin of their nicknames. “Students spent so much time with these fossils, Dr. Alf let the students name them,” staff member Cathy Sanders explains to the students before they wander off, rapt with the ashen skeletons and bones. Exhibits show the importance of studying fossils and the significance of the work behind the scenes. One display showcases “The Great Dinosaur Discovery of 1997,” when Webb students discovered a rare and scientifically relevant skin impression in a fossil from the duck-billed Hadrosaur.
One problem for the museum has been awareness. “I have had families say that they’ve lived here for 20 years and didn’t know we were here,” Moffat says. “Then they say they’re coming back next week.” Five years after Alf died, museum staff are looking to reach out to the community. “We try to hit as many people as we can to remind them that we are here,” says Linda Petrone, a museum spokeswoman. Outreach programs are organized by the museum, such as “Become a Junior Paleontologist” for second, third and fourth graders. Petrone, who had no scientific background when hired 11 years ago, now shares the passion and arranges tours for others to experience life within the walls of the museum. “Walking into something you know nothing about is scary, but it was fun to learn,” Petrone says. “Scared turned into interest.” That is what she hopes for the students coming into the museum. “It’s great to see the excitement in their eyes when they first walk in,” Petrone says.
Like the fossil treasures waiting to be found, Alf’s paleontology museum is a discovery waiting to be made. The museum offers a chance to take minds and imaginations as far as their interest will take them.
Finding the Lost World
The Alf Museum, 1175 West Baseline Road, (909) 624-2798, is located on the Webb Schools campus. It is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but closed from noon to 1 p.m. From Sept. 13 to May 29, the museum is open to the public on Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. Admission is $3 per person; children under four are free. On Wednesdays, admission is free.