The first object anyone donated to the museum was a porcupine fish, mounted on a board. Others gave rocks, geodes, insects, plants, feathers, hides, claws, bones. Those were the things that made up the museum’s early natural science collection. Spread out on tables or inside display cases, with identifying labels, such items represented natural history from prehistory to the present, which was then the late 1920s.
One of the museum’s most popular natural science attractions from 1976 to 1994 was a replication of a limestone cave, complete with stalactites and stalagmites. While the cave is long gone, the human fascination with rocks,geodes, fossils, and other natural formations continue to be represented in the natural science collection today.
The Collection Today
The current collection is composed of unique objects that help foster both curiosity about and enthusiasm for the sciences. The intensely hands-on, investigative nature of science is reflected in the scope and use of objects in the Natural Science Collection. Items related to zoology, botany and geology provide materials used in exhibits and programs throughout the museum, including the Dow ScienceWorks gallery. Another area of particular collecting interest is paleontology, which is evident in the gallery Dinosphere: Now You’re in Their World and in the Polly Horton Hix Paleo Prep Lab where visitors can interact with paleontologists and see scientific research being conducted.
In fact, paleontology (the scientific study of prehistoric life) has become one of the museum’s specialties. Natural Science curators participate in extensive fieldwork, including exploration of the Late Cretaceous (65 million years ago) Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota where museum staff and visitors journey each year to a dig site in the Ruth Mason Quarry. The quarry contains the sparse scattered remains of such dinosaurs as Tyrannosaurus rex,Triceratops, Dromeosaurus, Troodon, crocodiles, turtles, and other creatures, and it is one of the largest beds of Edmontosaurus (a duck-billed dinosaur) fossils in the world. Each year, with the assistance of families and teachers taking part in the annual Dinosaur Dig, museum staff excavate and research fossil bones found on that site.
Items discovered and recovered during the dinosaur digs are prepared in the Polly Horton Hix Paleo Prep Lab. Here they are carefully cleaned, stabilized and prepared for display and research—a process that visitors can watch. There, scientists also work on specimens from other dig sites and institutions.