Attention Peccary Men and Women!; Look to your bones

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Harvard's museum veteran Dr. J. O. Brew says he knows of no other such place "where you can learn so much so fast." Astronaut Gene Cernan, the moon-goer, called it "a fabulous experience in our lives."

Paleontologist Mary Leakey visited to study ideas and techniques.

A senior citizen called it "a religious experience."

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And a little boy responded to the personally conducted tour: "Dr. Alf, I love you."

They are among 60,000 visitors from all over the world as well as from southern California to visit since the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Life opened its doors here in 1968.

Prime mover and inspiration for this unique institution is a 75-year-old dynamo, former Webb School biology teacher, who disarmingly insists: "The compensatory drive for the surmounting of limitations is a dynamic force!" And, true to his word, the museum is more of a force than a collection.

The exhibition of fossils and artifacts telling the story of evolution becomes a celebration of the triumph of life on earth. It starts with a look at the heavens and ends with collections of early civilizations and cultures from Egypt, Thailand, and the Indian Southwest.

It is not merely to be looked at. This museum pioneered as a do-it-yourself place. A child visitor wrote back, "Thank you for letting me hold a 40 million-year-old egg in my hand."

Most of the exhibits are discoveries by students and/ or their teachers in the field. Visitors are invited to look beyond the walls and also behind the scenes at how the museum grows. Giant photographs from Western badlands plus a preparation workroom at the hub of the circular hall of life show the museum in the making.

Photographic portraits of young achievers accompany specific discoveries they made for themselves. Here a young visitor is challenged to change the makeup of the museum itself. It is Raymond Alf's deepest wish that -- like life itself -- the museum never be "finished."

From here young people go out to find "documents of life" in the field; gather them up out of rock and sand; carry them back "home"; and with technical art, carve and drill the fossil bones out of their stony burial places in order to prepare them for exhibition.

Out in the grand landscapes of this country and as far afield as the sands of Egypt, young persons meet the challenge of coordinating hand and eye and brain, body and mind -- the very elements that life scientists recognize as the crowning achievement of the human species in the story of life to which they themselves are contributing.

The founder himself has been to every inhabited continent to bring back rare finds. Glass cases arranged in rough chronological order feature such treasures as 3.5 billion-year-old dawn-of-life remains from Australia, preserved mammoth tusks from Alaska's icebox glaciers, and fossil evidence of man's physical ancestors from Africa's Olduvai gorge.

Dr. Alf is looking forward to going to the South Pole to complete his world -- wide odyssey.He is the motivating force for the enthusiasm of other teachers. Curaor Grant Meyer, his successor, is a one -- time student of Alf's who returned to the museum after 14 years at Yale as a field leader of paleontological expeditions all over the earth.

In Meyer's student days, the exhibits were jammed into the basement of the Webb School library. The museum had begun with weekend camping trips for the high school students. Alf's interest in rocks had led to random fossil discoveries culminating 43 years ago in the internationally significant find of a new genus and new species of peccary -- or pig. Therein, the "Peccary Society" informally grew into being:

"We're Peccary Men, out looking for bones" became a song around student campfires. The society eventually started including "Peccary Women." Museum and society began receiving national attention, and an article in Boy's Life evoked wistful letters from young readers in half a dozen states, asking how they might join.

Thanks to friends and supporters, who also helped build its home on the Webb campus, the museum last year won permission from the school to have its own board of trustees and also a committee for endowment to enlarge its service to the general public, especially to young students.

A dramatic first step was taken to make the Peccary Society a national organization, sparked by trustee Gard Jameson of San Francisco.

Up to this time, the achievements of the museum as an instrument of public as well as private education had been accomplished without endowment, admission charge, or funding from taxes.

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