History of the Desert Museum

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 2021 N Kinney Rd

Explore the AZ-Sonora Desert Museum/History of the Desert Museum
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Written By Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Desert Museum is ranked on TripAdvisor.com as one of the Top 10 Museums in the country and the #1 Tucson attraction. Unlike most museums, about 85% of the experience is outdoors! The 98 acre Desert Museum is a fusion experience: zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium. Beyond merely an attraction, the Museum's conservation and research programs are providing important information to help conserve the Sonoran Desert region.

"Here was a magnificent area of desert, sky and mountain to understand, appreciate and interpret for all who came this way." - William H. Carr

Founded in 1952, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is widely recognized throughout the world as a model institution for innovative presentation and interpretation of native plants and animals featured together in ecological exhibits. William H. Carr inspired and founded the Museum with the support of his friend and the Museum's initial benefactor, Arthur Pack, conservationist and editor of Nature Magazine.

Carr was a natural history writer who worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and helped to create the Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park in New York. In 1944, he moved to Tucson because he believed the environment would be better for his health, and was disappointed that the locals did not seem to appreciate their surroundings as much as he did.

“From the first I was enchanted by the desert, yet struck by what seemed a gross lack of knowledge about it among the local populace as well as on the national level.," - William H. Carr

Carr saw a need for an educational zoo like the one he created at Bear Mountain, but later said he faced “tremendous opposition.” The locals, he said, associated zoos with “the terrible, little roadside snakefarms” that existed along highways in the region.

Carr's vision of animals in environments similar to their natural habitats, became possible with help from his friend Arthur Pack, one of the first environmental philanthropists. Pack was also the founder of Ghost Ranch, the retreat in New Mexico made famous by the art of Georgia O’Keefe. He came from a midwestern US family that made their fortune in logging, and his father was a well-know expert on forestry.

The site selected was 12 miles west of Tucson in the Tucson Mountains -- much further from the Tucson of 1952 -- with no paved roads and over Gates Pass. The site was mostly natural desert with a few buildings, known as the Mountain House, originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. These structures are still in use today as part of the Museum's entry. The 98 acres of the Museum continue to be owned by Pima County and leased to the Museum, which is governed by an independent Board of 24 members.

In the 1950s, one of the museum’s first animal residents was also its most famous a mountain lion named George L. Mountainlion. George wrote a popular column for the Arizona Daily Star (with help from its staff) and became a symbol of the museum, along with many charismatic mountain lions who have lived here since.

Cover image: ASDM

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History of the Desert Museum

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