In the afternoon at the Natural History Museum, Adam Rountrey, the Vertebrate Collections Manager, showed us around the collections. In the the paleontology department, we met several U of M students busy carefully packing up ancient bones and fossils for the move over to the new Research Museums Complex. William Sanders taught us about making cradles, which are special containers tailor-made to transport and store a fossilized specimen. Making a cradle is a labor intensive process, especially when you are trying to protect a giant mastodon skull!
We then learned about the process of making casts and molds of fossils. First, if the fossil is still embedded in its matrix (rock and sediment), it must be removed and cleaned. Then, the scientist must decide what type of material to use for the cast. For example, if the scientist wants to study microdamage on the fossil, they might choose silicon, which creates detailed molds but takes a long time to set. Thicker materials dry faster, but do not preserve the same detail. The museum also makes hollow casts, which are much lighter and easier to work with. Hollow casts give more flexibility on how the specimen is displayed. Think about it—as massive whale skeleton, like the one hanging in the Exhibit Museum—would be far to heavy to be safely suspended above your head if it were not hollow inside.
We also got a sneak peek into the museum’s incredible imaging lab. Here, they can scan and then 3-D print models of their specimens. While the 3D prints are perfect for displays, they cannot print to the same precision as casts and molds. However, Tom told us that the technology continues to improve.
After learning how fossils are cleaned, cast, and carried, we descended to the museum’s basement to meet some paleo specimens face-to-face. We saw mastodon skulls, pygmy hippos, and peccaries. Peccaries are hoofed mammals that look like fury pigs, and they lived in Michigan during the Pleistocene. The museum collections has several peccary skeletons that are so well preserved they look like they could be just a few years old. However, these peccaries actually died thousands of years ago, although we do not know exactly when because they have no yet been carbon dated.
We also explored the mollusk collection, which contains over 5 million specimens! Some of mollusk shells are so tiny, hundred fit in a single jar. One of our staff members remarked on the beautiful, chest-high wooden cabinets housing the collection. Thomas Duda, Associate Curator of Zoology, explained that they were specially created for the first collection manager who was a short woman who did not want to climb ladders. We also learned that freshwater clams, euniadids, often look completely different and have different names, depending on if they live in lakes or streams, even though they are closely related.
As our conclusion to our museum visit, we talked with Carla Sinopoli, Director of the Museum Studies Program at the University of Michigan. We told her about the Museum Studies program at the Earlham College, and she explained the certificate program offered by the University. The one-year program is completed at the same time as a student’s main graduate or PhD degree. The program requires four classes and an internship, which can be anywhere in the world!
And at long last, the moment we had all been waiting for…dinner at Zingerman’s! There, we tasted an array of cheeses, made from milk, goat, sheep, and water buffalo milk. After sampling and purchases, we chatted over delicious sandwiches before returning to the hotel and relaxing (in the hot tub!) for the symposium tomorrow. Don’t miss our next blog post on the fascinating conference!