May 2, 2003

Local PRI Museum Showcases Geology

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Looking at the walls that still need to be painted and the construction equipment that still rests in the corners, it is hard to imagine the new structure next to the Paleontological Research Institute on Route 96 as a first-class museum. But that is exactly what the building is planned for.

About 30 people, including PRI members, Cornell faculty and paleontologists from across New York State gathered at PRI Monday night for their first glimpse inside what will soon be the brand-new Museum of the Earth.

According to PRI’s website, the new museum, housed in an 18,000-square-foot addition, will be “a major educational and cultural center serving the students, teachers, and residents of upstate New York.” The layout is designed to lead people through the history of the Earth in chronological order. Each room, or “world,” will feature displays highlighting a certain period in time with a focus on New York State.

These rooms will include the Devonian World, beginning 380 million years ago; the Triassic-Jurassic World, beginning 225 million years ago; and the Quaternary World, beginning 2 million years ago. Each world will have hands-on activities, specimens and displays about its time period. There will also be “one big object per world,” said PRI’s director, Prof. Warren D. Allmon, atmospheric and earth sciences.

One of the larger objects will be the Hyde Park Mastodon. This mastodon skeleton is one of three that have been excavated through the combined efforts of Cornell and PRI. It has 220 bones and will be mounted in the Quaternary World.

“Even though the trend right now is to mount casts, we felt like we had to go with the real thing,” Allmon said.

Casts of the skeleton are currently being produced at the University of Michigan, but they will be used for scientific research while the actual bones remain on display. The skeleton will be accompanied by a 2/3-life-size model created by the Discovery Channel for a documentary they produced which featured the mastodon.

Other highlights include a preparation lab, a mural and the museum’s landscaping. According to the website, the preparation lab “will allow visitors to watch scientists and volunteers work on real fossils,” giving them an idea of what’s involved in paleontology. The mural, which was created by local artist Barbara Page, took over four years to complete. It consists of 544 tiles, each depicting fossils from a million-year period in the earth’s history.

Outside of the museum, there will be a garden area with what Allmon described as “appropriate paleobotanical plantings.” These will include plants that have not changed much in millions of years, such as dawn redwood, gingko and magnolia as well as plants that used to be much more dominant than they are today, such as horsetails.

Although PRI is well-known in scientific circles, Allmon hopes that the new museum will present information in a way that will appeal to the general public as well.

“We’re going to try to hybridize between a classical natural history museum and a science-center feel,” he said.

Prof. John Chiment, biology, director of the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers, agreed, saying that while PRI has always had “the type of museum where only scientists go,” there will now be “what most of us think of as a museum.”

PRI hopes to open the museum around Labor Day and expects to see 50-60,000 visitors a year. However, the opening may be postponed if PRI cannot meet its fundraising goals. The institute has already raised $6.4 million, but another $2.3 million is still needed.

The tour of the facilities on Monday was followed by several talks on subjects related to the work done at PRI, particularly the Mastodon Project. Speakers included Prof. Tom Lake of Dutchess Community College, Carol B. Griggs grad and Peter Nester and Jim Sherpa of PRI.

“I think the museum has the potential for being both a place of fun and a place of learning. I am sure that it will be an excellent resource for the community,” Griggs said, adding that it may help Cornell attract more faculty and students who are interested in local geology.

PRI was founded in 1932 by Prof. Gilbert Harris, geological sciences. According to Chiment, Harris was known for being eccentric. He was one of the first faculty members to accept women as graduate students and expected a lot from his students. Each year, Harris and his graduate students would sail boats round-trip from Ithaca to Cuba and collect fossils along the way. He kept printing presses and required students to print major research papers for themselves. He also had an extreme fear of fire.

This fear, as well as concerns that the University would not properly care for his collections once he retired, led Harris to move into his own completely fireproof building on North Campus.

“He was probably right [to move his collection],” Allmon said, “but he took the incredibly misguided step of founding his own institution in the middle of the Great Depression.”

Luckily, the institution succeeded, and PRI remained at that site for many years before moving to its current location in 1968.

The collection currently houses two to three million fossils and shells as well as an extensive research library. According to Allmon, it is the seventh-largest museum of its kind in the country, on par with collections housed at Harvard and Yale. Although there are no official ties between Cornell and PRI, the two institutions are still closely connected.

Over the years, Cornell has given all of its non-botanical fossils to PRI.

“If it’s not a fossil plant, it’s over here,” Allmon said.

In fact, Allmon estimates that one-third to one-half of PRI’s collection originally came from the University.

“Lots of other institutions have transferred collections here” also, he explained, citing Syracuse University and the State University of New York at Binghamton as examples. The collections were given to PRI in hopes that they would be cared for better.

Archived article by Courtney Potts