The scientific tourist #2 — a quick tour of the Roswell UFO Museum

I like to think of myself as an open-minded guy, so when the opportunity presented itself, I thought it’d be fun to drop in at the “International UFO Museum and Research Center” in Roswell, New Mexico. It’s conveniently located right in the center of town, just a few steps south of the intersection of the main roads leading into town:

Out front

Not too surprisingly, at least if you’ve ever read a scrap of UFO-related literature, the museum puts its main focus on the 1947 crash of… well, of… of something 75 miles northwest of Roswell back in 1947. A whole slew of bad books about this event have been published in the last 20 years, and there is no shortage of related trash online and elsewhere, so I was hoping (if not expecting) that possibly the museum would take a somewhat critical look at things.

If nothing else, it only costs a few dollars to get in, so I figured that at least I’d get some entertainment value from my time there.

I won’t go into details of the whole crash story, particularly since it’s already well discussed here, here, here, and here. But I’ll give you a quick outline version:

  • Debris was found scattered across a stretch of ranchland by the ranch’s foreman after a particularly bad thunderstorm in late June or early July of 1947 (dates vary depending on the source).
  • The foreman told the sheriff in Roswell about the debris, who then told the local Army Air Field (this was before the U.S. Air Force was organized as a separate branch of the U.S. armed services).
  • A major and his assistant from the air field went to the site, and collected bundles of debris — described at the time as consisting of tinfoil, rubber, paper, tape, and sticks.
  • On July 8, 1947, the Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release stating in part “The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chaves County.”
  • Later the same day, the Commanding General of the Eighth Air Force stated that what had really crashed was a weather balloon, and the previous press release was withdrawn.
  • Nothing much was said about the crash until the late 1970’s, when a series of books popularized the incident and started an expanding and mutating story which by now has multiple conflicting versions, with conflicting locations for the crash site, sometimes including the recovery and study of alien bodies.
  • After a number of congressional inquiries, the General Accounting Office directed the Air Force to conduct an internal investigation of its own. The first Air Force report, released in 1995, concluded that the recovered material came from a reconnaissance balloon system, launched as part of a once highly classified effort called Project Mogul. If you’d like to read this material (all 1000 pages of it!), it’s available online here. The second report, released in 1997, concluded that the alien body stories were based on innocently mutated memories of fatalities from test aircraft, combined with anthropomorphic dummies used in a variety of test programs.

Crash test dummy The museum’s treatment of the so-called Roswell crash (which, strictly speaking, occurred closer to the village of Corona) is surprisingly even-handed (although brief, and more than a little sloppy) in its presentation of alternative explanations.

Most of the space given to the crash consists of copies of old newspaper clippings, and recreations of the collected debris (based on eyewitness descriptions). But the museum also gives a respectable amount of space to the USAF version of events. To the right, for instance, is a test dummy the likes of which the USAF thinks is the source of “alien body” stories (click to enlarge it in a new window).

Corona crash diorama 1 Corona crash diorama 2Unfortunately, the museum does come across as a pretty amateurish production overall– they seem to have accepted & put on display anything that was given to them, for instance a number of dioramas of the Corona crash. Not only do the dioramas all disagree with each other, but with the eyewitness accounts as well.

Maybe they are on display for fanciful reasons, but if you’re trying to give a factual presentation of events (much less be taken seriously), this is no way to do it…

A number of photographs of purported UFOs from around the world (possibly the reason for calling this the “International” UFO museum?) are also on display. I appreciated the fact that proven frauds are identified as such. But there’s little detail given on the situations in which any of the other pictures were taken. Something more akin to a “case files” style of presentation could have made this an actual resource — rather than just a collection of photographs of smudges.

Alien autopsy

Sadly, this is the “high point” of the museum — it’s all downhill from there, the Corona crash material rounded out with a hodgepodge of various pseudoscientific filler.

For instance, the museum hosts an alien autopsy scene, made from props left over from the production of the made-for-TV movie “Roswell.” I never saw the movie, but the scene in the diorama is apparently based on some of the 1980’s-vintage descriptions of alien bodies that were purportedly recovered from a second (even more secret) crash site near Corona. Again, this has all been thoroughly debunked — but it figures prominently here.

Palenque lid

The museum also hosts a replica of the tomb lid of Pacal the Great, 7th century ruler of the Mayan state of Palenque.

On the bright side — for most people, this is as close as they’ll ever get to the real thing. But disappointingly, only the Erich von Daniken explanation of the lid is given, which holds that the graphics on the lid represent an ancient astronaut seated in a Mercury-style space capsule. The more plausible interpretation based on traditional Mayan iconography (in which Pacal is shown descending after his death into the underworld) is not even mentioned.

There’s a whole section devoted to the so-called “Bermuda Triangle” too. All very credulous material, no critical questions posed or scientific explanations offered here.

Stepping outside for local flavor, you’ll find that nearly every building within a few blocks of the museum has at least one shop that’s UFO-themed:

Local flavor 1          Local flavor 2          Local flavor 3

From what I can tell, most locals (the long-term ones, at any rate) seem to look at the UFO museum as being a tourist trap rather than as something to take seriously. I guess if the museum brings in customers, they’re more than willing to wink at its abundant eccentricities. For sure, there’s no shortage of tongue-in-cheek alien knick-nacks, refrigerator door magnets, and T-shirts in this town!

To wrap up, I can’t say I was expecting very much from the museum, but was secretly hoping for more (and better) than I found. I honestly think that if this can be called a museum, then you could just as easily call a pot-luck dinner a restaurant. The whole place has the feel of something that was cobbled together by enthusiastic, if ill-informed volunteers. And if the dioramas are any indication, they have a lot of time on their hands.

Is this place worth the drive, and cost of admission (currently $5 for adults and $2 for kids)? Possibly, depending on whether you were going to be “in the neighborhood” anyway, and on how much you care for quirky displays of modern-day americana. If people are willing to go out of their way to see the world’s largest ball of twine, why not this too?

If you’re looking for a source of reliable information, this is definitely not your place to stop. But entertainment value aside, I’d argue that the UFO Museum is worth a look — if only as an inadvertent living testimony to the effects of “true believer syndrome.”

Caveat emptor

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5 Responses to The scientific tourist #2 — a quick tour of the Roswell UFO Museum

  1. I get the impression from your review that it is intended as “Another Roadside Attraction” and the locals are rather bemused by their town’s only real claim to fame. Woe to the Chamber of Commerce member who suggests true museum quality, which would debunk any claims of ufologists and cut off a cash cow.

    It reminds me of the 6th Floor Museum in the Dallas West End Marketplace, which presents all of the Kennedy Conspiracy theories. The frustrating thing about it was that the main viewpoint was that there was a conspiracy, and it gives all of the kooks equal weight. But it’s in Dallas, in a tourist location, so they make money. Or at least they did. I haven’t been there in 15 years, so I am not even sure if it is still there. It was right next to the mini-golf, too.

    I found your blog through Mike The Mad Biologists blogroll amnesty.

  2. Sam Wise says:

    I don’t think it’s *intended* to be just another roadside attraction. I got the impression that the people who created / maintain the place are UFO “true believers” who come up short in terms of critical thinking skills (and the motivation to develop them).

    They really, truly, WANT to believe in UFOs.

    The locals (at least, the long-term ones that didn’t move to Roswell to be near the hub-of-all-UFO-thought) definitely seem to have a tongue-in-cheek perspective on the museum and on UFOs. I doubt any of them would take the risk of publicly criticizing something that (from all appearances) brings a lot of tourists through town. Geese and golden eggs, and all that…

  3. Pingback: Sorting Out Science » Blog Archive » Skeptics’ Circle, the 91st

  4. Green Eagle says:

    I found myself in Roswell a couple of years ago, returning from Marfa, Texas after working on “There Will Be Blood”. I was actually quite surprised to see the amount of negative information about flying saucer claims included in the Roswell UFO Museum. Contrary to my expectations, the museum actually seemed pretty even-handed. It was an amusing experience of Americana, and far less offensive than so much of the anti-scientifc crap that one can find online.

    By the way, if you walk around the corner, you will find a great little bookstore filled with conspiracy books and other materials. I enjoyed talking to the owner, who seems to be a perfect example of the notion “buy into one conspiracy, buy into all of them”, and I bought a book which gave me a good deal of innocent amusement on the way back to L.A.

  5. Despite the quality of what you witnessed at the museum I cannot help but think this is purely a commercial exercise and not particularity pertinent to the events of that infamous day (s). That said, it does serve to keep the profile of the events in the public eye and perhaps one day we will be graced with the true facts of this alledged UFO.

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