Interpretation at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Carol M. Cochran

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona 85743-9989, USA


The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is not a botanic garden. It's not a zoo either, although sometimes called one. Nor, despite its name, is it a traditional museum. It is something of all three, and a nature center as well. We say we are a "living museum," because for the most part our collection is alive, consisting of 300 species of animals and 1300 kinds of plants. We also include geological objects (fossils, minerals, rocks) and geologic processes and features. Our entire collection comes from the Sonoran Desert region, a 100,000 square mile area located in Arizona and California in the United States and in Sonora and Baja California in Mexico. For the most part, our collection is not displayed taxonomically, but by community. Thus, there is, for example, a desert grassland exhibit, a riparian exhibit, an Arizona Upland exhibit, a mountain woodland exhibit. Even when the emphasis of an exhibit is on a single organism, as for example our hummingbird exhibit, we stress interrelationships – in this casThus our collection exists, not only within the context of its exhibits, but also within the context of the natural community it interprets.

The regional focus of the Desert Museum, its physical location, and its emphasis on interdisciplinary exhibits are great advantages when it comes to interpretation. No matter what form it takes – exhibit, signage, informal docent-talk, workshop or class – our interpretation focuses on the connections and interreland dependencies, ecological roles and services, if they are ever to care about saving either species or habitats and if they are ever to be effective in doing so.

Conservation education—the basis for the Museum

Conservation education was the reason for the Desert Museum's founding in 1952. The founders were a far-sighted museum educator and a conservation-minded philanthropist, both transplants to Arizona from eastern states. They loved the desert but were surprised that their enthusiasm was not shared by most Tucsonans who ignored and sometimes mistreated their environment. For its founders, the Desert Museum was a way to entice Tucsonans into the desert and to showcase its wonders, so that they would come to understand, appreciate and properly care for this rare community. Thinking back on opening day, one of the founders remembered that visitors "streamed along the desert pathway as if it were some magic garden instead of the very Sonoran landscape amidst which they lived". He went on to say that "This may have been the crowning success, that we were showing them how to see and enjoy their own surroundings, which meant education in its most useful form" (Carr, 1982). Today, Tucson is a city which seems to live more compatibly with the desert than do the residents of most other desert cities. Tucsonans, for example, consume less water per capita and are more likely to landscape with native plants than the residents of other Western cities. As Tucson's number-one attraction, the Desert Museum is often credited with encouraging the city's conservation ethic.

It is wonderful to claim tangible results from educational efforts because only rarely can we do so. An educator's greatest frustration is that education often works so imperceptibly. It is especially frustrating for us conservation educators because today's environmental crises are so great and because public knowledge seems so small. We wonder if we do any good at all when we learn from a recent survey, for example, that only one in five Americans claims to have even heard of biodiversity and that of 1500 Americans surveyed, not one mentioned the loss of diversity as a serious problem (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., 1993). This, despite the fact that millions of people visit zoos or public gardens; indeed one of every three Americans visits a zoo each year, and 92% of them feel they are educated by their experience (Roper Organization Poll, 1995). Although our audience is large and wonderfully receptive, it isn't necessarily getting our message. Conferences like this are so important because they give educators a chance to share experiences, as we all attempt to discover the techniques, lessons or examples that will result in the sort of public understanding that leads to changed behaviors and responsible actions. The remainder of this paper discusses how staff at the Desert Museum have engaged in this search.

Educating the public through storytelling

We use interdisciplinary teams to plan and design our exhibits and to write our interpretive signage. Educators are always members of these teams. We have come to think of ourselves, not as exhibitors of objects, but as storytellers. The stories we tell are about communities and their interdependencies, about the connections between living things and between organisms and their non-living surroundings. If these stories can truly engage the imaginations of our visitors, they will, we hope, come to recognize the importance of biodiversity. They may never again ask "What good is a cholla cactus?". Though they may not be able to say precisely what was lost along with the Mexican wolf, they could imagine broken connections. Stories are important because they illustrate nature's complexity in specific and comprehensible ways: stories are more compelling, memorable and revealing than facts.

Because our Museum is interdisciplinary, we have, within our staff, people who know these stories. And because our museum focuses on one region – and that region is the well-studied Sonoran Desert – we know quite a few stories. We tell of the kangarack and forth from Mexico coincides with the floweriavelina which can tolerate its toxic flesh and sharpl weavers. This plant is also shelter for the packrrdes, and mesquites. And there is a whole anthology of stories about the saguaro cactus and its many relationships.

Stories are deeply satisfying to the human desire for complexity and continuity. Yet they are not necessarily what our visitors expect. They ask to see individual species, taxonomically arranged (Where is the mountain lion, the mineral room, the cactus garden?). They often want facts about individuals (how old is that saguaro, what have you named the beaver?). They prefer not to read long texts. Most declare themselves more interested in animals than plants, at least at the beginning of their visit. And they would not claim education as the primary motivation for their visit. How then to tell these stories?

Making sure that storytelling is effective

First of all, we try to design exhibits which are themselves stories or at least good settings for stories. We exhibit communities rather than separate species, and in deciding on the components of exhibits, we first consider the stories we want to tell. A few years ago we built a desert grassland exhibit. Such an exhibit had been proposed many years before – as a pronghorn antelope/prairie dog exhibit. The first thing we did was to change the name so that it emphasized the entire community. Then we decided not to ex difficult to keep in captivity, they need the context of a very large area (which we didn't have) and we worried that, because of their size and their allure, thecus and the elements we wanted to emphasize – grass and its diversity and the little things that power the community: termites, ants and soil microorganisms.

Throughout the museum, we have insisted that plants be given equal weight to animals, rather than serving as backdrop or decoration. The plants, animals and, for that matter, the geological features, in each exhibit would be found together in nature. Plants actually dominate our desert grassland exhibit because it is the sea of grass that defines and gives character to this community. We made sure that a large portion contained no animal enclosures to draw attention away from the grassland itself, which was planted with about 30 species of grass and several shrubs – all native to the desert grasslands of southern Arizona. We adjust the timing and amount of irrigation to duplicate the rainfall patterns of desert grasslands. This means the grass is brown. We brought in horses to graze, and we would have set fire to a portion had we been able to obtain permits.

We hope that our exhibits speak for themselves – that they tell their stories, not didacticallyow prairie dogs are adapted to wide-open spaces, how they remove or modify the vegetation, how other animals rely on their shelters.

Stories are most clearly told through words, of course. We try to design and write signs that set forth more than facts, that do not assume a reader's interest but create it, that are as interesting and revealing as narratives. Sometimes we are successful, but we feel we are still learning. We have not yet discovered to our satisfaction the magic that will compel most visitors to read our graphics and understand and enjoy what they have read. We feel that long hours of brainstorming among team members from many disciplines, extensive testing of draft signs, and continual revision are keys to success, but this is a time-consuming process. We are having good success with simple and informal signs we call yellow tags. These are small cardboard tags, printed with short messages about seasonal or ephemeral happenings. They are hung here and there along the paths. Visitors aren't sure what they are or even whether they're supposed to read them – so they do! And they find out about a bush being pollinated by wasps, or a carpenter bee making a nest in an agave stalk, or the sweet fragrance of desert mist 'green tag.' These arhummingbirstaff figured out that when we removed the plants during renovation, we also removed the spiders. Without their webs, the birds could not bind their nests.

The value of docents

We have found that our most effective method of interpretation – besides that offered by the exhibits themselves – belongs to the Desert Museum's docents. Our docm grounds. Each day between 20 and 30 docents of comes in the form of a kit or a cart and includethe saguaro, the jojoba, adaptations of desert plants, dendrochronology, wildflowers, desert grasses, riparian habitats and pollination. The saguaro cart is our most popular kit – among docents and visitors alike – and that's fitting, since the sagt in which are stored potted saguaops to tell the life history of the saguaro: the non-biological factors on which the saguaro depends – soils, slopes, rainfall, temperature – its pollinators, its seed dispersers,day. Visitors gather around the cart, listening to the story for a while, interrupting with questions and thoughts of their own.

We train our docents in an initial 100-hour training program on Sonoran Desert ecology, given by our curatorial staff. They also receive separate training for each interpretive activity, and we have an extensive continuing education program. Our docents are trained to be generalists, as is consistent with our interdisciplinary philosophy. We teach them not to lecture but to use informal and interactive interpretive techniques such as questioning, anecdotes and humor that appeals to the senses. We tell them to put together stories about connections. We train them in interpreting to kids. And then we let them go. The stories are their own, and so is the manner of telling. This freedom has its risks, but it results in interpretation which is personal, spontaneous, genuine and enthusiastic. The stories have a distinctive voice, are accompanied by props and are geared to the interests, background, knowledge, age and time-availability of the audience.

We have about 170 adult docents. We also have about a dozen college students earning credit for their docenting, and we train junior docents, who are junior high-school students, to interpret to the Museum's visitors on weekends and during vacations.

Special programs for the public

In addition to on-grounds interpretation, the Desert Museum offers special programs to museum members and the general public – adults, children and families. These programs share the interpretive philosophy of our exhibits and docent talks. Most areion can be personal and invite self-discovery. Most classes take place outside, in the desert, and involve direct observationary, made up of stories about connections. Although Tucson is a desert city, those who live in its heart are often strangerkly plants and animals. We aim to help people feel at home in the desert.

Our Sonoran Studies programs are workshops, classes, hikes, trips, symposia. We offer three to four of these per month, primarily to members. A popular yearly program is the saguaro harvest, during which participants go into the desert to gather the fruits of the saguaro in the traditional manner of the Sonoran Desert's Tohono O'odham – the native desert people whose lives still center on the saguaro cactus. Consultants have helped us fashion our event so that it is both o adults, children, and family groups. Other ethnobotanical events have been sessions on cooking with cholla buds and the medicinal uses of native plants.

Working with schools

We offer free admission to school children on organized field trips – about 23,000 per year. Last year we revamped our procedures, follo to exhibit, trying to see it all, focusing almost exclusively on an observation, we have stationed docents at least six places on the gand a plant adaptation kit).

We have encouraged teachers to take advantage of the desert near their schools by offering teacher workshops and in-service training sessions on schoolyard habitats, urban wildlife, or using desert washes as classrooms. Because outdoor classrooms are not always possible, we lend kits of materials to bring the desert into the classroom. One kit deals with the life history of the saguaro; it includes background information, parts of the saguaro, seeds, photos, posters, videos. As with all kits, it is complex enough to form the basis of a month-long unit. We also visit classes. In fact, we do so nearly every day of the school year, and we give presentations to adult community organizations. These are always organized around some theme; they include hands-on materials or live animals and plants, and they are presented in an informal, interactive manner.

We have helped a number of schools build desert habitats on their grounds. This will be only one of the projects we'll undertake this year with an elementary school we've adopted as part of a program, Amigos del Desierto, which fosters a partnership between the Desert Museum and an elementary school with a large Latino population. A bilingual educator coordinates the program, which has two primary goals: to bring the desert to inner-city children, and to bring the Museum to the Latino community, in the hope that, as we become more familiar to them – and more friendly – they will visit us in greater numbers.

In addition to the 100 acres which comprise the Museum's grounds, we own 40 acres of desert just a few miles away. This is a great place for field activities and for campouts. We've offered overnight experiences to families, students, summer class participants and teachers. We also use the property for field studies. Last year, we began a Junior Naturalist program, a year-long experience which teaches middle-school students the skills of the naturalist: species identification, surveying and censusing, animal observations, environmental ethics, orienteering, and so forth. The students used the Museum and its off-grounds property as laboratories. Thoroughly familiar with the desert community, at the end of the year they went off to practice their skills in a new community during a two-week camping trip to Utah.

An internship program for high school students also emphasizes first-hand experiences in science. Twenty students come to the Museum for one afternoon a week for a semester. Our staff teach them the fundamentals of desert ecology, as much as possible using hands-on, interactive, and outdoor techniques. Then the students work two hours with a Museum department, usually on a research project. Last spring the botany department's interns researched germination techniques and methods for rooting cuttings, and they observed phenology and pollination. Though reluctant plant researchers at first, by semester's end, the students reported back to their classmates that plants were fun.

International campaign for pollinators

The Desert Museum has been the center of a recent ambitious and well-publicized campaign known as the Forgotten Pollinators. This effort focuses on the critical role of pollinators and the increasingly frequent disruption in pollination – through habitat destruction or fragme programs for children and families, igbird exhibit are the beginnings of what will be a more extensive pollination exhibit.

For two years now we have experimented with keeping much of the Museum open through the evening on summer Saturdays. Visitors love to experience the desert at night; especially lively discussions take place at our moth garden where large, fragrant patches of sacred datura, evening primrose and other flowers are bombarded by hawk moths. The garden is such a mecca for moths that it has also attracted three researchers from the University of Arizona who are looking at plant fragrances and how they are produced, transmitted and received by the moths. These researchers show up on Saturday nights to talk to our visitors and have taught our docents to substitute for them when they aren't available.


The Desert Museum is regional and interdisciplinary. It is outdoors, for the most part, and located in the environment it interprets. It promotes direct, first-hand experiences of nature. When it comes to education, this is a powerful combination of characteristics. It allows us to tell stories about the connections among all components of our amazingly diverse desert community. We believe these stories have helped Tucson residents to live more harmoniously with their desert surroundings, to see themselves as responsible members of a large, natural community. Over half the Museum's visitors come from outside Arizona, many from outside the United States. We hope they also take from the Museum lessons which help them become better citizens of their natural communities. In conveying these lessons, stories have great advantages. They have universal appeal because they touch the imagination. They reveal general truths deeper and more important than the specific facts which illustrate them. Visitors may not remember all the details of a story – the intricacies of the relationship between, say, the yucca and the yucca moth – but they will retain their sense of wonder and their realization that life is a complicated web, a tangle of connections, which cannot be broken without consequence.


Carr, William H. (1982). Pebbles in Your Shoes. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. (1993). Highlights from a National Public Opinion Study on Biodiversity (conducted for Defenders of Wildlife), July 20, 1993.

Rober Organization Poll. (1995), AZA News, Bethesda, MD, USA.

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