April 9, 2003

Museum of the Earth Nears Completion

Print More

Just across Lake Cayuga, construction is nearing completion on the Museum of the Earth, an ambitious project to produce one of the largest natural history museums in New York State. The museum will feature interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations and an earth-friendly geothermal heating and cooling system.

The museum is an arm of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI), an internationally-known organization which holds one of the largest fossil collections in the world–over two million specimens, including more than 250,000 once owned by Cornell University. To house the museum, PRI built a new wing for its historic main building on Trumansburg Road.

Designed to provide an educational experience for all age groups, the museum will focus on interactive exhibits. Parents and children will be able to engage in cooperative activities throughout the museum, but students from the many nearby colleges should find the museum equally interesting.

“It’s great for the primary and secondary kids, but it’s also for the local college population,” said Samantha Castillo-Davis ’00, community relations liaison for both PRI and the new museum.

Castillo-Davis said she originally became involved with PRI through public service work while a student at Cornell. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a tremendous resource; if only people knew about it,'” she said. “It was a shame to have this enclosed, not to share it. Engaging people in the earth sciences, to ensure that the field survives, is very important.”

Visitors will snake through a series of exhibits, “Discovery Stations” and “Transition Theaters” progressing from the Cambrian period, 540 million years ago, to the present. This timeline is represented not only in the physical layout of the exhibit spaces, but also by a 500-foot-long mural near the entrance of the museum. Created by local artist Barbara Page, “Rock of Ages, Sands of Time” consists of 544 painted 11″ by 11″ panels, each representing one million years of life on earth.

The entryway is dominated, however, by the huge skeleton of a modern-day Northern right whale hanging from the ceiling. The whale died in 1999 after becoming entangled in fishing nets off the coast of Massachusetts. PRI acquired the four tons of bones making up the whale’s skeleton, and cleaned them using a process similar to composting in preparation for display in the museum.

Although construction for the Museum of the Earth began just last June, the museum was conceived in 1992 by PRI’s director, Warren Allmon, who is also an adjunct associate professor at Cornell. Ten years and one $6 million fundraiser later, work began on the two low, angled wings making up the museum. The building is intended to evoke the shape of Ithaca’s many gorges, and the surrounding landscaping only helps reinforce this impression. Water is channeled between the two buildings, forming a literal gorge pointing down toward Lake Cayuga. Parking lots are hidden behind terraced berms that make them all but invisible from the roadway, continuing the theme of integration with nature.

One of the most impressive features in the museum’s design, however, is its energy-efficient heating and cooling system, which uses the Earth itself as a valuable resource. A geothermal heat pump acts as a giant heat exchanger, circulating water through a pair of wells drilled 1500 feet into the earth. Because the temperature so far underground is very stable, the water drawn back out of those wells will be 55-60 degrees all year round. “It’s pretty neutral, so it doesn’t take a lot to heat it, it doesn’t take a lot to cool it,” Castillo-Davis said.

According to information supplied by PRI, geothermal heat pumps (GHPs) can reduce energy usage by as much as 72 percent compared to electric heat and air conditioning, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 67 tons annually. Yet GHPs are not in very widespread use, largely due to their steep construction costs. PRI received a New York State grant to cover most of the $160,000 difference between the geothermal system and a traditional heating and cooling system. Castillo-Davis pointed out that despite such a large gap, the system would have paid for itself in energy savings in under ten years.

The geothermal system bears many similarities to Cornell’s larger-scale Lake Source Cooling project, which uses the lake as a reservoir of consistently cold water for cooling. According to W. S. (Lanny) Joyce ’81, project manager for Lake Source Cooling, GHP was considered as an alternative, but was determined to be prohibitively expensive for the scale Cornell required.

Nonetheless, Joyce expressed support for PRI’s choice of a GHP for the Museum of the Earth. “It multiplies the effect of every unit of electricity used,” he said, noting that it also matches the museum’s “Earth” theme. “It’s a neat thing to do from an educational standpoint; it fits really nicely with what they’re all about,” he said.

Planners at the museum apparently couldn’t agree more–the equipment for the GHP is visible to guests through a series of windows inside the museum, making it something of a permanent installation in the exhibit space.

In addition to the geothermal heat pump, the museum’s lower level boasts a multipurpose classroom that lies at the center of PRI’s public outreach programs. According to Castillo-Davis, the room will primarily be used for educational workshops that PRI has until now been running farther away. “The museum exhibits are going to help enhance them,” she said.

The space may also be rented out for meetings, conferences and classes, she said. Among the first beneficiaries of the classroom will be students in EAS 479, a paleobiology course taught by PRI Director Warren Allmon. Students will be driven to the museum for the class’s weekly lab sessions. As for other uses, “it’s really kind of wide open,” Castillo-Davis said.

To determine how else PRI and its new museum can increase its ties to the community, PRI recently organized a tour and information session for all interested parties. “What kind of programming can we offer here that will be of interest to you and your constituents?” Castillo-Davis asked them. “Then the next step is to take all those ideas, compile that, [and] get an ongoing dialog on how they might want to partner with us in the future.”

The ultimate goal, she said, is for the museum to help Ithaca and its surrounding communities “become a cultural destination point–a boon for the local economy as far as tourism goes.” Once it opens, the museum is expected to draw 50-60,000 visitors each year, she said. Already, the museum has joined the Discovery Trail, a partnership of eight Ithaca cultural attractions. “We try to collaborate to do marketing together,” said Mary Beth Bunge, coordinator of the Discovery Trail. “It’s such a national-class museum, it’ll do nothing but help all of us.”

Currently, Bunge is working with the Museum of the Earth to apply for a federal grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services. “We’re working toward developing the right project for that,” she said.

Castillo-Davis agreed. “It would be great if this museum became a gateway to exploring Ithaca,” she said.

Archived article by Peter Flynn