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Distant past moving into future at USU-CEU Prehistoric Museum

Who's on display? A young alligator in the Prehistoric Museum's "Living Fossils" exhibit seems interested in the "Modern Mammals" display on the other side of the glass. "Living Fossils" are creatures relatively untouched by evolution over many of millions of years.

Sun Advocate Reporter

When Ken Carpenter was interviewing for the job of USU-CEU Prehistoric Museum director last spring, he told the search committee one of his chief goals would be to increase attendance by adding more drama and visitor involvement in the exhibits.

He got the job in May, and now the museum is undertaking a painstaking, labor-intensive program to dramatize and personalize the science behind the exhibits.

One example is the project the museum's director of education and exhibits Lloyd Larson has been working on. Larson is building a new "Living Fossils" exhibit to relocate the live fish and reptiles now on display. The soft-shelled turtle and alligator will share a disguised swimming pool near the current exhibit. They'll have a better backdrop than the current tank, along with amenities such as a rock waterfall and room for two dry platforms for basking. "They fight over the one they have now," he explained. Reptile brains cannot compromise, apparently.

The monitor lizard will have a room of his (her?) own. Might as well plan for growth, he said. Monitors can hit 10 feet nose-to-tip of tail and weigh 200 pounds.

Living fossils are plants or animals that have shown little modification over many millions, even hundreds of millions, of years. The alligator, for instance, looks much the same as the ancestral ones that were living before the dinosaurs. Prehistoric 'gators, however, could reach 50 feet in length.

Once the reptiles move out, the plan is to remodel the storage room behind the current exhibit and put different specimens on display - paleontology and archaeology lab workers. These are people who clean and catalog all the ancient items arriving at the museum. Carpenter said the objective here is to give visitors a glimpse of all the detail work that goes into research and display creation.

High on the priority list is relocating the Utahraptor from its current perch on the second floor to front-and-center stage in the entrance hall. "It will have an interesting, dynamic pose, something that will look like its ready to attack people who are coming in," Carpenter said. It could even be leaping, as if ready to slash with its scimitar-shaped back claws.

Interest should begin as soon as people come through the glass doors, he explained.

The sand pit, where the stegosaurus and camarasaurus now lie in repose - "They look like they've been run over by a bus," Carpenter quipped - is also in for a makeover. "We're not sure what we'll do yet, but we'll show them all interacting. Maybe the stegosaurus will be swinging its tail at the allosaurus," he said.

Some work of a different sort is also under way in the pit. Museum workers are stripping the paint off the camarasaurus neck bones. As Carpenter explained it, the skeletons in the pit contain lots of actual dinosaur bone along with some replicas. They have all been painted a uniform black.

The director thinks people should be able to see the real fossil bones for what they are. "Imagine going to the Louvre and seeing a replica of the Mona Lisa. People wouldn't appreciate that," he declared.

The museum is far more than just a place to thrill tourists, though. It is also a research and education institution. Carpenter said he and the staff are working on plans to redesign the museum in a way that will integrate different elements of prehistory to make the whole tour more meaningful

"The way it is now, when you come in you turn right to go into paleontology or you go left for archaeology. That's not the way life is," he said. For example, stone-age Native Americans relied on rocks from the Cretaceous Period Cedar Mountain formation for tools. The new way of displaying would show some relationship between two widely separated times in prehistory.

Coal is another example. Linking the prehistoric processes of coal formation with the past and present of this region's economy would provide additional context.

All of this work, Carpenter said, is aimed at preparing for the new museum. In less than 10 years, plans call for a new building on Fairgrounds Road.

There has been nothing in this article about the archaeology side of the building. With more than 750,000 artifacts in its collection and more coming in, it is a story in itself. That's for the next article.

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