Jurassic Parks and Rec

For years, there has been a hole in the cultural landscape of the Valley of the Sun. We have nationally recognized art museums, history museums, children's museums, science centers, theaters and symphonies, as well as every professional team sport, but we have never had a natural history museum. Where can you go to see fossilized dinosaurs, meteor fragments and mesoamerican artifacts without putting 800 miles on your car? The question is a little embarrassing when you consider the rich geological and anthropological history of this part of the country, but it's finally been answered. On May 27, Mesa Southwest Museum stepped up to the plate and delivered the Valley's first quality natural history museum with its 80,000-square-foot expansion featuring more than 40 new exhibits.

The 23-year-old museum has struggled over the years to legitimize itself in the local museum world, growing from a 3,000-square-foot historical society largely devoted to Mesa's Mormon settlers into a first-rate center for Southwestern archaeological study. If you go -- and you should -- you will be treated to interesting displays on Arizona's caves, Spanish missions, ancient mammoth hunters and the Lost Dutchman mine. Most impressive of all, however, is the new three-story Dinosaur Mountain exhibit. The artificial mountain, complete with flash floods and thunderstorms, is home to three animated beasts and a dozen or so static models and cast skeletons of dinos from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Mesa Southwest Museum is located at 53 North Macdonald in downtown Mesa. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors (55 and over) and students with ID, $3 for children 3 to 12. Museum members and children under 3 are admitted free. For more information, call the museum at 480-644-2230.

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James Ward