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Blast from the Past

Volume 14 | Number 1 | September 2012

By Steve Kiggins
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Big Al’s address hasn’t changed. His house has.

When its doors reopen in November following an extensive seventh-month renovation project, the University of Wyoming Geological Museum will have a distinctive new feel, highlighted by the additions of a preparation laboratory and a traveling exhibit space, plus upgraded lighting and flooring, revamped exhibits and an increased emphasis on education.

As if the 75-foot Apatosaurus skeleton that lives in the exhibit hall isn’t enough of a jaw-dropper, UW also has worked to enhance the museum’s “wow factor” through a renovation process designed to help the 56-year-old facility become a focal point for student and faculty research while continuing to showcase Wyoming’s geologic history and mineral resources.

All that’s left is to hear the roar of approval from museum patrons.

“We’ve always had quite a bit of ‘wow factor,’ because we’ve always had great fossils on display. We’re going to keep that, ‘Wow, that’s a big dinosaur,’ ‘Wow, that’s a cool rhino,’ and add in that, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Wyoming was like this during that time period’ to give people a better sense of the animals in their native environments,” says Kelli Trujillo, the museum’s manager. “It’s just going to be even better than it already was.”

UW spent about $1 million on the first phase of renovations, aided by a $500,000 allocation from the office of UW President Tom Buchanan, $400,000 in major maintenance funding and private support. Support for the museum was also funded through an endowment of approximately $570,000 established by retired UW professor Brainerd “Nip” Mears and his wife Anne, which was doubled to $1.14 million by state matching. Their contribution is a tribute to Mears’ mentor Samuel H. “Doc” Knight, the notable geologist, professor and early curator of the museum.

Two Wyoming firms—Malone Belton Abel P.C., of Sheridan and Marshall Contracting Inc., of Laramie—have played principal roles in construction operations. Terry Chase of Chase Studio Inc., based in Cedarcreek, Mo., had led efforts to improve exhibit spaces.

“We have a big vision for the museum, but the money we have so far will only take us part of the way,” says Mark T. Clementz, a UW associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and the museum’s interim director. “We’re focusing now on physical aspects of the museum but, eventually, we want to use funding to develop programming that contributes to the university’s outreach and education missions.

“We do have a vision for the museum, and that vision includes developing the museum to its fullest potential.”

The biggest changes inside the museum figure to draw the biggest crowds.

The windowed preparation laboratory will offer a modernized space for UW students and researchers to work with fossils while also creating a new exhibit that will give visitors a glimpse into the life of a paleontologist.

The traveling exhibit space, meanwhile, will address one of the primary criticisms of the museum by providing an area that can be used to rotate exhibits on a regular basis.

The other most notable changes will be central displays for the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods that Clementz says will allow patrons to “walk through time.”

The Cretaceous landscape will showcase the museum’s T-Rex and Triceratops skull casts and other fossils near a large wall mural of long-ago Wyoming. The Jurassic landscape, which includes Big Al, the most complete Allosaurus fossil ever found in the United States, will be enhanced with time-period vegetation and updated information panels.

The museum’s roots date to UW’s opening in 1887. From a small natural history museum that highlighted the personal collection of UW professor J.D. Conley, the museum has evolved into a showcase of Wyoming’s geological history.

And more changes are on the way.

“We have other plans that Terry is developing that we will incorporate with additional funding,” says Clementz. “But we understand that for people to really want to invest in the museum, they need to first see progress. And I think this first phase of renovations shows that we’re really serious and that we have the backing of the university, the state and the community.”

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