Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Overview and History

The mission of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert.

The Desert Museum is ranked on 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.

The Desert Museum's Art Institute inspires conservation through art education and gallery exhibits. The Museum's publishing division, ASDM Press, has produced over 40 books and guides on the natural and cultural history of the Sonoran Desert region.


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. The Museum is regularly listed as one of the top ten zoological parks in the world due to its unique approach in interpreting the complete natural history of a single region (in our case this is the Sonoran Desert and adjacent ecosystems). This represents a significant achievement, as the Museum’s collections and size are smaller than many of its counterparts. Not a “museum” in the usual sense, it is an unparalleled composite of plant, animal, and geologic collections with the goal of making the Sonoran Desert accessible, understandable, and valued.

Today, this approach can be most easily understood by noting that the Museum’s living animal collection contains 4,892 specimens of 242 species. Plants number 56,000 specimens of 1,200 taxa; mineral and fossil collections include 16,853 specimens. Represented in the living collections are 110 to 120 species considered to be of conservation concern.

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 had earlier founded the Bear Mountain Trailside Museums and Nature Trails in New York State, which was affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History. It was at Bear Mountain that Carr developed his ideas of working with native plants and animals to create a regionally focused collection.

Carr moved to Tucson in 1944 where he found “a gross lack of knowledge [about the desert] among the local populace as well as in the national mind.” He became acquainted with local naturalists, and then affiliated with the Pima County Park Committee. This connection eventually led to the establishment of the “Arizona-Sonora Desert Trailside Museum,” today called the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Carr faced “tremendous opposition” because the local knowledge of zoos was largely limited to the “terrible, little roadside snakefarms” which at that time were often seen along highways in the southwest.

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.

Carr's view and vision set the tone for displays as can be understood from his description of the first mammal enclosures that were designed, in his words, “as a balance between animal comfort, ability for the visitor to see the animals, and interiors that would be kept as much like the natural habitat of the animal as our scanty funds would permit.”

Opening day was on Labor Day 1952, and the crowds came over the dirt road confirming Carr and Pack's hopes that the community was anxious to learn more about the Sonoran Desert. Months after the opening, the first Board of Trustees was formed including key people from the Tucson community selected by Carr, Pack, and William Woodin who was one of the first staff members and would eventually succeed Carr as director. Among the first Board members was Joseph Wood Krutch, the renowned naturalist author, who had retired to Tucson. Another noteworthy founding Trustee was Roy Chapman Andrews, a noted paleontologist who was devoted to the science programs of the Museum. Today, the Museum’s science program continues to be funded in part by a fund set up by Andrews. One of the research legacies of the Museum that continues today is to tie research programs directly to educational interpretation so that visitors may gain a sense of scientific inquiry and the vital importance of ongoing science study to society.

One of the first actions of Woodin and the new Board was to drop the word “Trailside” from the name since this continued to conjure images of a roadside attraction, not an institution committed to education and excellence in the care of its living collections. The Board also remained committed to showing its strong tie to Mexico by including Sonora, the name of the state of Mexico immediately south of Arizona, in its official corporate name. This symbolic act was profoundly important in underscoring and promoting relationships with the country of Mexico throughout the history of the Museum.

These ties continue today in a host of ways: education programs that are conducted throughout the Sonoran Desert, research programs in all parts of the region, and staff exchanges with various Mexican institutions.

The early vision of having plants and animals from the region displayed together demonstrating their interdependence as the focus of the Museum was unusual enough, but Carr’s vision went further. He insisted that there be ethnology of the region displayed, and created a Papago House on the grounds. Today, ethnology and its interpretation continue to be strengths of the Museum with regular demonstrations, for example, by Tohono O'odham basketweavers surrounded by the native plants they use in their craft.

Early on, particularly due to the work of Lew Walker, Associate Director, the Museum began to have direct impact on various conservation programs in Mexico. Continued to this day under the leadership of Richard Brusca, the greatest impact has been on the protection of the islands in the Sea of Cortez.

An early innovation developed during the first years of Woodin's directorship was the famous Water Street — a series of displays about water usage and conservation in the desert. This effort, along with the beginning collections of regional minerals, underscored that the Museum’s mission includes interpretation of the entire natural history of the Sonoran Desert. Today, the Museum has one of the finest collections of minerals from a single region to be found anywhere in the world, and geology enthusiasts from around the globe come every year to view these specimens. Carr resigned in the fall of 1954 after an illustrious career. His vision, drive, and enthusiasm set the Museum on the path that has never varied: integrated, innovative exhibits of all aspects of the natural history of the Sonoran Desert coupled with strong education programs. He attracted a small, but remarkably talented staff and supporters, including Woodin; Mervin Larson (also to become director); Walker; and Merritt Keasey, each of whom made important contributions to the institution.

The Museum originally opened as a free facility, with no public tax support. Pack, through his foundation, had provided the sum of $200,000 to begin the Museum and pay the initial operating costs, but it was essential that a gate fee eventually be charged. In 1953 an admission charge of 50 cents was instituted. Today the admission charge for adults is substantially higher and there is still no direct tax support for the Museum.

The docent program, which has grown to become one of the hallmarks of the Museum and is recognized by our industry colleagues as one of the finest docent corps in existence today, began in the fall of 1972. The genesis was a small group of volunteers trained to take school children on tours of the grounds; today the docents are stationed around the grounds to provide live interpretation to all who visit. These docents undergo a rigorous 15-week training program and currently contribute more than 75,000 hours annually to the Museum.

The Museum's other education programs have also developed over the years, most notably by Hal Gras who created a program to take live animals to schools and other venues. His program, begun in 1955, dubbed “The Desert Ark” by Joseph Wood Krutch, touched tens of thousands of people. Even though Gras retired from the Museum in 1985, many people today recall being inspired to learn about the desert from Gras. Through the generous support of the Red Acre Farm and Bert W. Martin Foundations the “Desert Ark” program has been reimplemented and is visiting children and schools throughout southern Arizona.

Woodin and Larson both made lasting contributions to the Museum. Woodin was Director for 17 years, and to date, the longest tenure for a director. He institutionalized and solidified the founding vision which he, of course, helped create as one of the first staff members hired by Carr. Under Woodin, the exhibits dramatically expanded including the Underground Tunnel (now called “Life Underground” and dedicated to Carr), Water Street USA, and the Sunset Desert Demonstration Garden to promote desert landscaping. Many people today credit the large amount of desert landscaping in Tucson to the Museum's natural and naturalistic landscape. Under Woodin the reputation of the Museum grew rapidly at both a national and international level. He was an important figure in zoos nationally, becoming one of the initial incorporators of the AAZPA, now the AZA (American Zoo & Aquarium Association).

Larson, who succeeded Woodin as Director, was known, even before he was named to that position, as a great creative talent who worked tirelessly to design the most naturalistic exhibits possible. He perfected techniques of creating artificial rockwork and was responsible for numerous exhibits including the beaver and otter exhibits, the desert bighorn sheep enclosure, cat canyon, and the cave, all of which stand today. This spirit of innovation in natural history displays continued during his tenure as director and until he left to found the Larson Company, which itself has had a profound impact on the entire world of zoo exhibitry.

During the 1990’s a number of important renovation and infrastructure projects were completed, including a major expansion and landscaping of the public and staff parking lots, reconfiguration of the Museum's front entry patio, construction of new restaurant and special events complex, and extensive path and utility line work. Important new habitat exhibits were also completed including the Mountain Habitat, the Grassland, and the Hummingbird Aviary. In the Hummingbird Aviary visitors can see up to eight species of hummingbirds and these animals regularly bring off clutches in the enclosure. For its successful work on hummingbird propagation, the Museum received an AZA “Significant Achievement Award” in 1998. There were also several exhibits on the new Desert Loop Trail. The Javelina and Coyote exhibits showcase a low-visibility, fencing developed by Museum staff. In addition, the ever-popular Ancient Arizona exhibit opened in 2000, and gives children the opportunity to dig for life-like fossils. In 2001, the Desert Museum launched the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute (School of Natural History Art), which fosters conservation through the arts. The Art Institute offers a variety of different programs, including youth art classes, workshops, and a nature illustration certificate program. In 2007 our newest exhibit “Life on the Rocks” was opened as well as two critically needed buildings, the Baldwin Education Building and a 300-seat indoor facility, the Warden Oasis Theater. These two new visitor areas provide our guests climate-controlled environments for lectures, animal presentations and formal classes as well as catering and rental spaces for symposia, conservation related meetings and social gatherings. In 2008 the Museum collaborated with Forever Young Treehouses of Burlington, Vermont and constructed the first fully accessible treehouse/discovery nature center in Arizona. Corporate support and personal gifts made the “Coati Kids Clubhouse” possible.

Years ago, the Museum developed a television series that has become known as “Desert Speaks” and was produced in cooperation with the local PBS affiliate (KUAT) and broadcast in 200 markets. Robert Edison, the Museum’s Executive Administrative Director served as co-producer.

The Desert Museum is now over 50 years old and the commitment to the founding ideals is as strong as ever. The spirit of innovation and excellence of Carr, Pack, Woodin, and Larson live on with ever-improved exhibitry. This has been most recently evidenced by the creation of the “Desert Loop Trail,” a half-mile long loop through natural desert along which are large enclosures, made of Invisinet® developed by former Museum Director of Design, Ken Stockton, for animals such as javelina and coyote. This fine stainless steel netting is nearly invisible to visitors providing a greatly heightened sense of seeing animals in natural conditions and is now on the market available to other institutions. In 1998, the AZA presented the Museum a “Significant Achievement Award” for the Javelina Exhibit.

The Museum's education programs are rapidly expanding to include direct involvement with science curricula, and new outreach to rural areas of Arizona and Mexico.

During Richard Daley’s tenure as Executive Director, his primary goals were two-fold: to maximize the impact of the Museum and to develop a more stable, long-term financial base.

For many years, the Museum has been involved in scientific investigations at a modest level. Research and conservation programs are expanding significantly with emphasis on studies directly related to conservation of the Sonoran Desert. This work includes the Species Survival Plan work on the Mexican gray wolf and thick-billed parrot as well as cooperative work on the reintroduction programs for these species, and managing stud books for various taxa of endangered species. The research program, often involving outside scientists as well as staff, includes studies to discover the reason for the rapid decline of the Tarahumara frog, botanical field investigations especially in Mexico, population studies of Ironwood, and a major bi-national research program on migratory pollinators.

Because of the continued and expanded loss of habitats and biodiversity in the Sonoran Desert, the Museum will play increasing roles in public policy issues related to desert conservation in the years ahead.

Increasingly the Museum tries to find ways to enlarge its reach, whether this is in school and community education programs in urban and rural areas of Arizona, Sonora, and Baja, through publications, or through electronic communication. At the same time, the Museum will continue to be at the forefront of developing exciting exhibits and interpretation for those who visit the Museum in order to ensure the greatest educational and inspirational impact.

Following the tragedies of September 11, 2001the Museum experienced the same challenges of other like non-profit institutions, a downturn in tourism and financial contributions. The Board and senior staff decided to take an unusual approach and make a direct appeal to the Museum membership for greater support during the annual fund drive. The approach was well received and the Desert Museum witnessed the two best fundraising years in its history. This was also a period of new thinking for the Board and staff, as Richard Daley had left the Museum and Robert Edison was serving as interim director. After careful consideration it was decided that the Museum would implement a new executive leadership model (in many ways similar to that of the original management team) by appointing Robert Edison Executive Administrative Director, and Dr. Richard Brusca Executive Program Director. This model has been in place since 2003, and has been extremely effective in meeting the needs of the institution. 2004 was selected as the year to announce an $18 million capital campaign to the public. Having raised over $12 million in dollars and pledges, the Museum felt ready to bring this important campaign to the public for the remaining support. This capital drive represents the single largest fund-raising initiative ever undertaken by the Museum, and endeavors to bring much needed support to the Museum's modest endowment as well as a new education building, jaguar/mountain lion habitat, and animal retirement facility. There has also been an increased focus on the role of public science education, as the Museum has more closely interfaced the education and science departments placing greater emphasis on the Sea of Cortez than in past.

With a renewed focus on building the Museum’s reserves and endowments, the Treasure the Desert Campaign exceeded its intended goal of $18,000,000 and achieved $21,000,000 in gifts and grants. A significant portion of the Campaign’s revenues were directed to the long-term investment funds of the Museum. In addition, two new much needed and desired public buildings, The Baldwin Education Building and the Warden Oasis Theater, were realized as a result of this most successful Capital Campaign — the largest to date in the Museum’s history. The Museum is forever grateful to the Campaign’s co-chairs Laura Sundt Eberly and Harry George for their remarkable efforts as volunteer leadership in this highly successful fundraising endeavor.

In 2010, Robert Edison announced his plans to transition into retirement. Craig Ivanyi, who was serving as Deputy Executive Director, was advanced to the position of Executive Director and the new position of Executive Philanthropy Director was created and filled by Edison. It was the Board and Administration’s combined vision to have Ivanyi and Edison work as an executive leadership team with the plan of appointing a replacement for Edison upon his retirement. This team worked well together and many new initiatives were both designed and implemented over this period. They include, a significant expansion of the Art Institute and other arts related programs (including performing arts), the Warden Aquarium, the design for a new donor acknowledgement garden, and the beginning stages of new bird exhibits. In addition, a new collaboration with the University of Arizona’s College of Science resulted in the first “Geo-tourism” initiative focused on the Sonoran Desert Region. This project now includes other nature-based organizations and Visit Tucson, our local destination marketing organization and convention bureau.

The ASDM occupies a crucial niche in regional conservation and research efforts. Over its history, it has played a vital role in Mexican wolf recovery; protecting Islands in the Gulf of California and Tropical Deciduous Forest in southern Sonora, Mexico; direct salvage, augmentation, and reintroduction of at-risk reptiles and amphibians; developing a better understanding of venomous reptiles and their venoms; establishing regional coordination centers for invasive species management, as well as recognizing the importance of pollinators and documenting the impacts of climate change on mountain “sky island” biota. A number of prominent science and conservation leaders have stewarded the Museum’s research efforts over time, including Lew Walker, Richard Felger, Tom Van Devender, Gary Nabhan, and Richard Brusca. Today this work continues under the stewardship of several senior team members, including Debra Colodner, Craig Ivanyi and Stephane Poulin.

As the Desert Museum plans for the future, great care has been given to design succession strategies for the Museum’s leadership. This planning is being conducted for both staff and board leadership roles. Our history has taught us that institutional knowledge and demonstrated commitment to both the Museum and the local community are of necessity for one to be successful in a leadership role. As a result, diligence in staff development and retention as well as Board recruitment and retention are of the highest priority, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.


William H. Carr 1952-1954
William H. Woodin III, 1954-1971
Mervin W. Larson, 1972-1976
Holt Bodinson, 1977-1978
Daniel E. Davis, 1978-1989
David M. Hancocks, 1989-1997
Nancy R. Laney (Acting), 1997-1998
Richard H. Daley, 1998-2002
Robert J. Edison, Executive Administrative Director, 2002-2008
Richard C. Brusca, Ph.D., Executive Program Director, 2003-2008
Robert J. Edison, Executive Director, 2008-2010
Craig S. Ivanyi, Executive Director, 2010-present

Further Reading:

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