In the 1950s and ‘60s, El Paso, Texas, didn’t offer many opportunities for a kid with a learning disability. When Alberto Acosta saw that his grades wouldn’t get him into college, he set out on a different path.
“The minute I graduated high school, the next day I was on a bus for New York City,” he says. “I never looked back.”
Acosta went into the theater business, assisting producers, composing music, and negotiating contracts. “Doing everything from A to Z,” he says, working on and off Broadway and with regional companies. When he needed a break from the pressure, he went to museums and immersed himself in their quiet tranquility.
Now, he wants to open his own Museum of Ancient Wonders in the Coachella Valley.
“I noticed that museums were very much like the theater,” Acosta says. “Each object or each fossil had a name and a story — a beginning, a middle, and a dramatic finale.” He began wrangling meetings with paleontologists, seeking their advice on building a collection. He lived frugally, setting aside money to acquire replicas of important fossils and artifacts from museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution, American Museum of Natural History, and Royal Ontario Museum.
Alberto Acosta stands with a replica of the skeleton of a Chasmosaurus, a dinosaur from the Upper Cretaceous Period of North America.
Working with Egyptian artists at the Pharaonic Village — Cairo’s “living history” museum, akin to Colonial Williamsburg — Acosta bought sanctioned reproductions of King Tutankhamun’s golden shrines, state chariot, jewelry, thrones, funerary mask, and royal mummy case. He commissioned recreations of ancient African masks and artwork representing 3,500 years of tribal tradition. Eventually, he built five collections — more than 370 objects, from examples of the earliest invertebrate marine life and development of human civilization, to historic photographs taken by Apollo lunar missions and space probes. His goal was to create traveling exhibitions that he’d rent to museums in smaller cities.
“’Tutankhamun’ was important because it gave access to people who would never otherwise have access to the treasures of the Pharaoh unless they left their town,” he says. “My business was to bring it to them so it was in their back yard.”
The Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City, Michigan, hosted “Tutankhamun: ‘Wonderful Things’ from the Pharaoh’s Tomb” in 2018. Executive Director Eugene Jenneman timed the exhibit to coincide with the opening of a new wing of the museum and free-admission day. He estimates there were 1,700 visitors in the first four hours and 11,000 to 12,000 over the 15-week run.
“‘Tut’ performed incredibly well for us,” Jenneman says. “For a city this size, in the wintertime, that’s amazing.”
Another crown jewel in Acosta’s collection is a cast of “Lucy,” the Australopithecus afarensis skeleton estimated to be 3.2 million years old. The original was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and remains locked in a vault at the National Museum of Ethiopia, with a reproduction on display. Acosta says he was able to acquire the specimen in a trade with Donald Johanson, one of the paleoanthropologists who found the original “Lucy,” and the National Museum of Ethiopia.
Acosta is upfront that his objects for the Museum of Ancient Wonders are replicas, drawing a comparison to the impressionist paintings on display at Sunnylands, the former home of Walter and Leonore Annenberg in Rancho Mirage. In 1991, the Annenbergs donated the original paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and replaced them with digital reproductions.
“The fossils are direct imprints from the originals. That means you can look at these fossils and study them. They have all the crevices and creases,” Acosta says. “They’re the real thing. They’re just not as old.”
“Everybody understands that if you want to see the originals, you have to go to the museums that house the originals,” he adds. “This is to give access, to lift the level of education in communities that otherwise wouldn’t have access.”
Jenneman makes a similar observation. “I’m sure there were people who, as much as we emphasized the fact that they were reproductions, thought they were coming to see King Tut,” he says. “The other side of the coin is that people loved it. People read everything. They really got into it. From the standpoint of whether they were looking at real material or they were looking at reproduction material, and whether they realized it or not, they were learning about King Tut.”
Acosta proudly ticks off the places where his collection has been displayed: Boston, Cincinnati, Nashville, Syracuse, New York, as well as Puerto Rico, Taiwan, and Canada. More than 50 museums, libraries, and cultural centers have hosted one of his traveling exhibitions. Each time he went to a new city, he would scout around to see if it could become a permanent home.
“My big dream is to put it all under one roof,” he says, “so that I could immerse the visitor in the whole world of ancient civilizations and prehistoric life.”
In the fall of 2018, he moved to the Coachella Valley, which reminded him of the Chihuahuan Desert surrounding El Paso, and began searching for a location for the Museum of Ancient Wonders. He wanted a place that would draw tourists as well as locals. Although it hasn’t been finalized, he has his eye on a prime spot in Cathedral City.
Reproduction of a Grecian vessel, from the traveling exhibition, “Vessels of the Gods: Treasures of the Ancient Greeks 1650 – 410 B.C.”
“I went up and down the valley. There’s not one single natural history museum with a dinosaur skeleton!” he says. “You see African masks for sale on Palm Canyon Drive, but there’s no museum that glorifies the ancient world and prehistoric life.”
Acosta thinks the Museum of Ancient Wonders would complement the Palm Springs focus on modernism. “We can give context from the past to show where it all came from,” he says. He envisions “a new kind of cultural center,” showcasing artifacts from local historical societies alongside contemporary art from local galleries. In addition, he has an ambitious list of objects to acquire, such as a reproduction of the Winged Victory of Samothrace on display at the Louvre, more dinosaur skeletons, and exhibits on Aztec, Mayan, and Chinese civilizations.
“I’m just an artist who loves to tell stories, and these are the stories that resonated with me,” Acosta says. Reflecting on those college rejection letters from so long ago, he adds, “I thought, just learn from life. Produce from your own experience. Find what your passion is and just do it. Spend the money on something that’s going to last.”
When he’s not searching for a building, Acosta is forming a nonprofit organization, assembling a board of directors, recruiting staff, and meeting with potential donors. His message: “The exhibits exist. The acquisitions are in line. The shipping is waiting. Everything is in a straight line for the valley.”
For more information, visit moaw.org.