September 16, 2004

Museum of the Earth Completed

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Approaching its one year anniversary, the Museum of the Earth has completed all of its permanent exhibitions to offer the Ithaca community a unique way to learn about the history of the Earth. Supported by the work of volunteers, many of whom are Cornell students and faculty, the museum has also become a new classroom for Ithaca-area students ranging from local elementary schoolchildren to Cornell undergrads.

The idea for the Museum of the Earth was originally sparked back in 1992 by Prof. Warren Allman, director of the Paleontological Research Institution. “One of the reasons behind the museum is to show [PRI] has one of the best Devonian fossil collections in the world,” said Demetra Brodsky, art director at PRI. Originally founded in 1932 by Prof. Gilbert Harris, geology, PRI holds a collection of over 2 million fossils and shells.

“We have incredible support from the community and from the local businesses,” said Bridget Rigas-Gangi, associate director at PRI. The museum runs with a 12-person staff and thus is dependent upon the manpower of its volunteers. According to Frank Straub, volunteer coordinator, the museum’s volunteer base has doubled since opening, with approximately 210 active volunteers. Volunteers work with the fossil collections, in the graphics department, with the database and on the ground floor. Straub’s goal is to eventually have all three activity labs and the preparation lab fully staffed during the museum hours open to the public. “[Volunteering] really connects people with the geology around them,” Straub said.

Beyond the original connection between Allman and the Museum of the Earth, the Cornell community is heavily involved with PRI. Three professors currently sit on PRI’s board: Prof. James M. Cordes, astronomy, Prof. William L. Crepet, chair, plant biology, and Prof. Amy R. McCune, ecology and evolutionary biology. According to Rigas-Gangi, two Cornell students working toward their Ph.D.s interned at the museum this summer. Also, the Museum of the Earth became a new volunteer site for the pre-orientation service trip, a program where new students volunteer for a week over the summer at Ithaca’s various non-profit organizations.

Women in Science, a Cornell student organization, volunteers every weekend at the Museum of the Earth.

“We love it. It’s a lot of fun to go to the museum and talk to the people about what the history of the Earth was like,” said Jessica Fox ’05, volunteer coordinator for Women in Science. Members spend a few hours each weekend hosting one of the three activity labs placed throughout the museum. At the activity labs, kids and adults work with fossils, dinosaur bones and microscopes.

“They get to actually touch a dinosaur bone, which is really exciting when you are six,” Fox said.

Every first and third Saturday of the month, the museum offers “Natural History at Noon”, a lecture series hosted on various scientific topics. According to Rigas-Gangi, approximately 90 percent of the lecturers are Cornell professors that offer their time for free. Rigas-Gangi emphasized that without their support the museum could not offer this lecture series to the public.

In return, the museum has become an important resource for Cornell.

“We have had several classes from Cornell come use the museum as a classroom,” Rigas-Gangi said. PRI also hosts gorge walks for Cornell once or twice a year.

“We would like to strengthen our relationship with Cornell,” Brodsky said.

According to Rigas-Gangi, the museum had just under 40,000 visitors this year, a draw 10,000 less than the 50,000 Originally expected by Samantha Castillo-Davis ’00, community relations liaison for the museum.

Another major change is that PRI’s education program now can occur at the museum, offering kids and adults an interactive way to learn about the Earth rather than the traditional lecture and textbook. According to Molly Sax, educational program manager of PRI, before the museum, 95 percent of educational programming was outreach. Now with the museum as a resource, Sax said, “At least 85 percent of our education programming happens here.”

Over the past year, the museum has opened exhibitions in stages. With the opening of the whale exhibit in June, the museum completed all of its permanent exhibits. Now with the museum complete, Brodsky and Rigas-Gangi want to concentrate on the integration of all the museum’s departments: fundraising, marketing, publications, exhibits and membership.

They want all the departments to display one clear message to the public. Such integration was mobilized this summer with the “Whale of a Summer” program. The program included a sweepstakes for a whale-watching trip in Boston, lectures, a right whale program for kids and the production of a movie and book based on the story of the museum’s North Atlantic Right Whale #2030. Presently, the whale’s skeleton hangs in the front entrance’s glass atrium, an enormous display.

Further goals are to increase visitors and school teachers’ interest in PRI’s education program. Brodsky and Rigas-Gangi want to eventually see the museum hosting three to four temporary exhibits a year. Finally, the museum is continuing in its fundraising efforts. Currently, the museum has raised $7,015,048 of a $8.6 million campaign goal.

The museum is about to host its annual Community Days on Sept. 25, a celebration with food, live music and games. Brodsky said, “It’s our way of thanking our wonderful, gracious community in this area.” According to Straub, over 2,000 people attended last year. Straub said, “It was really a lot of fun to see that many people up here.”

Archived article by Casey Holmes
Sun Staff Writer