New Mexico's Largest City Offers the Inquisitive
a Quiver of Quirky Museums to Explore
Albuquerque for me was never much more than a refueling stop at the junction of Interstates 25 and 40. That changed when I attended a conference held at Hotel Albuquerque near Old Town.
Wandering around between meetings, I discovered the city to be rife with museums. Nearby sat the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science – interesting places but definitely mainstream.
What truly intrigued me were Albuquerque's quirkier repositories dedicated to unconventional themes. Here are a few, the first of which is famed for its tail-shaking exhibits.
AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL RATTLESNAKE MUSEUM
(202 San Felipe Street NW, 505-242-6569, www.rattlesnakes.com)
This tribute to fangs is located off the plaza in Old Town, an historic enclave built around the three-century-old San Felipe de Neri Parish church.
Entering the museum, the first thing I encounter is a gift shop packed with snaky T-shirts, ball caps, sculptures, signs, mugs and more. This would be a 12-year-old boy's dream, I'm thinking, especially if he had a shrieking sister.
"I had a group of women in their 70s and 80s in here one day," museum director Bob Myers relates. "They all bought T-shirts. I can just see that group walking down the street in their hot pink rattlesnake tees."
The museum displays 31 species and subspecies of rattlesnake. While their venomous counterparts slither throughout the world, the only vipers with rattles are found in the Americas. Signs ask visitors not to tap the glass enclosures in an attempt to get the inhabitants to buzz.
"Rattlesnakes don't automatically shake their tails," Bob explains. "Their first line of defense is to sit still and remain quiet. If we pass by and there is no interaction, they're safe. They're certainly not aggressive toward people."
In addition to the vipers, the museum displays poisonous spiders, a Gila monster (America's only venomous lizard) plus a few fang-free reptiles. There are also collections of art work, artifacts and collectibles with reptilian themes. While this is definitely not a petting zoo, Bob does offer a flayed rattlesnake hide to touch.
"We need to appreciate these reptiles as maintainers of at least a portion of our ecology," he pleas. "There are too many people out to rid the world of rattlesnakes, forgetting they are excellent rodent feeders and protect us in that way.
While the specimens here were truly striking, those at my next stop will be stone-cold stunning.
(2107 Central Avenue NW, 505-247-8650, www.turquoisemuseum.com)
Honoring rocks the color of seasick sailors, this gem of a museum sits in a nondescript strip mall near Old Town. Entry comes via tours at 11:00 and 1:00 with reservations generally required.
"I'm the fourth generation in turquoise," says owner Joe Dan Lowry. "My grandfather was the king of the industry to the world."
The 90-minute tour begins with a walk through a simulated mine shaft that shows how veins and nuggets look to miners.
"Water is your conduit," Joe Dan explains. "It's going to seep into the cracks and crevices within the mountain. The turquoise will fill whatever open spaces there are within that structure. When we mine turquoise, 85% is too soft to cut and polish or has no color."
Turquoise, he shows us, has three rarities – color, matrix and mine. Color refers to how dark and brilliant the stone is. Matrix refers how host rock intrusions come mixed in the blue-green gem. Mine refers to where the turquoise was unearthed with gemstones from low-output operations being more valuable than those from mines disgorging tons.
Much of today's turquoise comes from Mexico and China. Other stones marketed as turquoise are actually treated rock that has been dyed, reconstituted, stabilized, enhanced, oiled and waxed or outright fakes. By federal law, "natural" means the turquoise is a true gemstone, and anyone who's paying for the real thing, Joe Dan advises, should get that word in writing.
"This is one of the only museums in the world you're going to visit where you can actually use the knowledge you learned," Joe Dan points out. "You're not going to go buy a rattlesnake, but you may buy a piece of turquoise jewelry."
Although a visit here can be a rocky experience, my next museum figures to be truly touching.
(1701 Mountain Road NW, 505-224-8300, www.explora.us)
Located across from Old Town, Explora is a hands-on science center meets children's museum.
"Can I rent a kid?" I ask upon entering.
"Actually, over 50% of our visitors are adults," deputy director Kristin Leigh assures me. "It's a great place to come even if you don't have kids."
The first thing I encounter is the Ballnasium, a public art piece where balls track through a maze of pathways that would make Rube Goldberg proud. Not far away sits a workshop where I get to build my own version of a ball run.
Other exhibits include a water flow table where I explore my inner beaver and build dams and diversions. Nearby is whirlpool vortex where I drop objects in and see where they exit. Beyond, the turbulent orb imitates the atmosphere of Jupiter and Bernoulli blowers demonstrate how lift works. Virtually everything here is hands-on.
"The idea is that the stuff invites you to just do it," explains Kristin. "A staff member is going to come by and help you pursue different inquiries."
My favorite do-it-yourself inquiry comes on the high wire bike. Imitating the Great Wallendas, I'm going to pedal a bicycle across a steel cable stretched two stories above the lobby.
"Are you afraid of heights?" Jonathan, the attendant, asks.
I assure him that drop-offs don't bother me, but I'm not fond of falling. Strapped into a just-in-case safety harness, I hop atop a two-wheeler that features pulley-style indented wheels. I pedal along the skinny steel cable, remaining perfectly upright and seemingly secure.
"You might not be able to see it from here, but there's 300 pounds hanging under you," Jonathan explains. "With all that counterweight, you can't tip."
Even though this ranks as a personal high, I think as I dismount, my next stop will be even more uplifting.
ANDERSON-ABRUZZO ALBUQUERQUE INTERNATIONAL BALLOON MUSEUM
(9201 Balloon Museum Drive NE, 505-768-6020, www.cabq.gov/balloon)
The museum sits on the north side of town. Behind sprawls Balloon Fiesta Park, launch site for the city's sky-high tribute to hot air.
"We specialize in the history, culture, science and art of ballooning," explains director Sandy Cohen. "A lot of the great record setters come from here. The people for whom the museum is named, Anderson and Abruzzo, were both based in Albuquerque."
Max Anderson and Ben Abruzzo along with Larry Newman became the first to cross the Atlantic nonstop by balloon in 1978. A replica of their Double Eagle II gondola resides in the museum.
"The first time they tried it, they made it as far as Iceland and had to come down. That was the Double Eagle I," Sandy explains. "In the Double Eagle II, they made the successful trans-Atlantic flight. This is what the gondola looked like. Because it's a replica, people can go in and have their pictures taken."
Ben Abruzzo was also a crew member of Double Eagle V, which in 1981 became the first balloon to cross the Pacific. Their capsule sits on display, and in true New Mexico style, a string of chilies hang from its side. One member of the four-man flight was Rocky Aoki, founder of the Benihana restaurant chain. Hopefully his knives stayed at home.
Other exhibits include a reproduction of the Breitling Orbiter 3, the first balloon to circle the globe nonstop, and a circular capsule from the Navy's high-altitude Strato-Lab manned balloon program of the 1950s and '60s. For folks like Sandy who admit to a fear of height, there's a well grounded balloon flight simulator.
While this place certainly inspires lofty ambitions, I suspect my next destination will be blushingly racy.
UNSER RACING MUSEUM
(1776 Montano Road NW, 505-341-1776, www.unserracingmuseum.com)
Located between the balloons and Old Town, this museum heeds the need for speed. The first thing I see upon entering is a yellow Indy car on a rotating "Winner's Circle."
"In the 96 runnings of the Indy 500, there have only been three people who have won the race four times," explains docent Tom MacDuffie. "Al Unser is one of those folks. His fourth came in 1987 with the March Cosworth you see in the winner's circle."
Add another three wins by brother Bobby and the two by son Al Junior, and it's clear that the Unsers are America's fastest family That racing pedigree goes back to father Jerry and uncles Joe and Louis who as residents of Colorado Springs raced annually in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
Tom gives me a tour, relating the history of each vehicle. There are Indy cars, pace cars, Pikes Peak cars, an IROC car and even a few restored antique cars. Something, however, remains notably missing. There are no ropes. Visitors are simply trusted not to touch.
"This place has never had a rope around any car," brags Al Unser. "We have trouble when there's a busload of 60 kids. Other than that, we haven't had a problem."
The legendary driver, now in his 70s, frequently visits the museum he founded and loves to tell tales about his checkered-flag past.
"I sometimes get carried away," he admits. "Every time I tell a story, another one comes to mind. Pretty soon, I have to shut up and let folks look around."
Personally, I could spend all day listening to Al, but alas, I need to sprint onward. After all, my next museum bears a glowing reputation.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY
(601 Eubank Boulevard SE, 505-245-2137, www.nuclearmuseum.org)
The first time I visited, the place was called the Atomic Museum and it occupied a former REI storefront near Old Town. It has since exploded into a grand facility on the east side of town.
"We cover a lot of nuclear territory in this museum," says executive Jeanette Miller. "Not only do we present an intriguing and up close look at the history of atomic work and weaponry, but we also have expanded our content to include nuclear medicine and nuclear power."
I begin my exploration with World War II and the development of the atom bomb in nearby Los Alamos. World's first nuclear explosion occurred in southern New Mexico.
"This is a replica of what was hung there in a tower," Jeanette explains as we stand in front of a metal ball sprouting more wires than an electrician's nightmare. "They nicknamed it 'the gadget.'"
Beyond sit reproductions of the two bombs dropped on Japan. Photos reveal the devastation they created in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On a more peaceful front, there's an example of a nearly indestructible Trupact-II dumpster drum used to tote radioactive trash to salt beds where it's buried. Each stands 10 feet high and weighs around 6½ tons.
"They have taken these containers and dropped them, tried to explode them and tried to run over them." Jeanette assures me. "They're extremely durable."
In Little Albert's Lab, button-pushing kids get an animated puppet to explain nuclear physics. In the atomic energy gallery, I examine a model of a nuclear-powered merchant ship and an atomic power plant. The nuclear medicine area chronicles the development of the atom's lifesaving powers.
The nukes have been a blast, but it's time to move on. My next museum, I'm assured, will be something to toy with.
(121 Sandia Crest Road in Sandia Park, 505-281-5233, www.tinkertown.com)
Open April-October, this treasure trove of oddball art sits in the Sandia Mountains northeast of downtown Albuquerque.
Tinkertown looks like a Tinkerbell fantasy gone wild. Walls are made from glass bottles and horseshoes tile walkways. License plates, banners, signs, artifacts and oddities plaster paneling.
Carvings poke up everywhere. This amalgamation of folk art and repurposed refuse was the creation of visionary artist Ross Ward who confessed, "We did all this while you were watching TV."
Entering, the first thing I encounter is Western Town, a 60-foot-long miniaturized diorama of a Blazing Saddles-like cow town whose characters display real character. Push buttons and some move.
"Ross started making Western Town when he was in the army," explains wife Carla Ward. "We had it in a trailer and we'd take it around to state fairs. When we got married in 1981, we decided it was too much trouble to move, so we made a museum here."
Across sits a miniature Boot Hill diorama complete with angels, demons and Alfred Hitchcock. A circus diorama lines another hallway. Beyond, a quarter activates Otto, an accordion-centered one-man-band. Another quarter in the Career Pilot reveals my future occupation – nudist. Outside sits the Theodora R, a wooden boat in which Carla's brother circled the globe.
"Some people think it's the best exhibit we have," she admits, "particularly men who dream of sailing the world."
While Tinkertown could be a Peter Pan-worthy Neverland, the story of its creator ends sadly. Ross was diagnosed with Alzheimer's when he was 57 and died at age 62. Carla runs the legacy he left behind.
After three passes through the place, I'm ready to head back. It's been a long day and my final stop promises to be a real sleeper – my room at Hotel Albuquerque.