UW Plans Geological Museum Improvements

February 24, 2012
Children looking at dinosaur skull
Children from the UW Early Care and Education Center are among the young people who regularly visit the UW Geological Museum. The museum is slated to undergo significant upgrades later this year. (UW Photo)

Plans to revitalize the University of Wyoming Geological Museum are moving forward with the selection of an architectural firm to design improvements to the 56-year-old facility.

Work is slated to take place this summer in the first phase of renovation aimed at making the museum a focal point for student and faculty research, while giving the public an appreciation of Wyoming's geologic history and mineral resources.

The architectural and engineering firm of Malone Belton Abel P.C., of Sheridan, was selected to conduct a detailed analysis of the museum and work with UW planners to develop a schematic design for the improvements.

"The group working on the project has developed all sorts of wonderful new ways that the museum will involve and educate the public, and these improvements are the first step toward meeting those objectives," says Carol Frost, UW's vice president for special projects and a longtime faculty member in the Department of Geology and Geophysics.

Due to state budget cuts, the museum closed briefly in the summer of 2009, drawing attention from the museum's fans around the world. When the museum reopened in August 2009, it was with the help of private funds from the UW Foundation. Shortly after that, noted UW supporters Brainerd "Nip" and Anne Mears donated $570,000 to support the museum. Matched by state funds, the endowment now totals $1.14 million.

A second fund, in memory of noted geologist S.H. Knight, was created later in 2009. With state matching dollars, it has reached $250,000, joining with the Mears' endowment to generate operating money for the museum.

Meanwhile, the UW president's office has allocated $500,000 in one-time money for museum upgrades. Adding that to $200,000 generated by the Mears' endowment, the university has $700,000 to spend for the first phase of the project.

The work is expected to include possible removal of asbestos in the museum's floor tiles; modernizing the building's mechanical, electrical, lighting and fire protection systems; upgrading of technology; updating and reinstalling existing exhibits, including new signs; and designing and installing some new exhibits.

"From the time the museum was closed, we've come an enormously long way," says Art Snoke, professor and former Geology and Geophysics Department head who has led a task force charged with reinventing the museum. "We'll make a gigantic step forward this summer. It should provide a springboard for further fundraising to help the museum reach its full potential."

The roots of the Geological Museum reach back to 1887, the year UW opened. It was a small natural history museum that consisted of the personal collection of J.D. Conley, a professor who taught a range of courses, including geology, astronomy, physics, commercial arithmetic and bookkeeping.

As UW grew and expanded, so did the museum, its collections and displays. Wilbur Knight, hired in 1893 as a professor of mining and geology, succeeded Conley as curator. Eventually, the collection outgrew its home in the Hall of Language (now Old Main), and most of it found a new one in a wing of the Mechanical Building. When the Hall of Science was completed in 1902, the museum moved there. It stayed there until 1956, when the current structure was built on the east wing of what is now the S.H. Knight Geology Building.

By that time, Knight's son, Samuel Howell Knight, had worked at the university for more than four decades. In that time, he had developed the UW Geology Department into one of the nation's best. Knight designed the terra cotta bas-relief Stegosaurus and Triceratops panels at the front of the museum; built the copper Tyrannosaurus Rex that guards the museum's entrance; and even painted several of the displays inside the museum. He also was responsible for the initial mounting of the Apatosaurus skeleton that is the museum's centerpiece.

Kelli Trujillo, the museum's current part-time manager, says the project planners intend to maintain some of the museum's endearing features -- "preserving Sam Knight's museum," as she says -- while modernizing the infrastructure and "telling the scientific story as accurately as we can."

For example, she anticipates that while the Apatosaurus will stay in the center island -- along with the skeleton of "Big Al" the Allosaurus -- other fossils now in the island , but not from the Jurassic period, will be moved elsewhere in the museum. The center island then could be enhanced with topographical features and plants to represent the "Jurassic world."

Along those lines, museum planners would like to organize exhibits according to geological time to enhance the "informal science learning" that takes place in the museum, says Mark Clementz, associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics who's in charge of the department's scientific collections. Additionally, there are plans to rotate some displays in the museum to feature UW's extensive collection of vertebrate and invertebrate fossils, along with rocks and minerals.

"What's on display in the museum now is the tip of the iceberg of what we have," says Clementz, who himself is working on a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded exhibit about whale evolution.

There also are plans to develop more hands-on exhibits to make museum visits an even more meaningful experience for children -- who made up a good share of the museum's 13,000 visitors between Aug. 1, 2010, and July 30, 2011.

But the museum changes aren't only aimed at visitors. Plans call for the facility to become a center for teaching and research, with connections not just to the Department of Geology and Geophysics but to entities across campus.

Planning for the Geological Museum was aided by an outside assessment and self-study conducted through the Museum Assessment Program of the American Association of Museums.

The museum currently has no full-time staff and relies on a work-study student and two graduate students to be open to the public 34 hours a week. The hope is to eventually have several full-time staff members to help the facility realize its potential. However, that will depend upon further financial contributions.

"We're excited about the renovations that will take place, but it's just a start," Snoke says.

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