To remove the Edmontosaurus dinosaur skeleton from its sculpted mound in LSA’s Museum of Natural History, curators and museum staff had to be alert and gentle with the delicate bones—the dino had lain there on display for more than 70 years, after lying underground for thousands.
The staff also used caution with themselves—quaint lead paint had decorated the exhibit since its installation in the 1940s, not long after Museum Curator and Professor Ermine Cowles (E.C.) Case dug the dinosaur up from Montana soil and sent it back to Ann Arbor.
Now, those old bones can bring new insights to researchers at U-M’s satellite campus for museum collections: LSA’s Research Museums Center (RMC).
This spring, the Edmontosaurus (along with 480 truckloads of other museum specimens) traveled down the steps of the Ruthven Building, past the construction site of the new Biological Sciences Building, onto State Street, and around the bend of Varsity Drive to its new home at the RMC, about five miles from central campus.
The dinosaur joins research collections at the RMC that span LSA’s Museums of Paleontology, Zoology, and Anthropological Archaeology, along with LSA’s Herbarium. Though the RMC only recently opened its renovated doors to the museum specimens and artifacts, the Herbarium has rooted its plant collections there since 2001.
LSA provides buses and taxis for students and researchers who need to travel between central campus and the Research Museums Center for their work. Illustrated map by Julia Lubas.
Chris Dick, director of the Herbarium and the Museum of Zoology, looks forward to the RMC expanding as an active research and teaching scene, becoming almost like a dynamic field station of objects from research expeditions. Only a few major research institutions maintain physical collections like those at the RMC, which are available for ongoing and future study.
Some research can happen only through handling specimens in physical collections at a place like the RMC. The growth of LSA’s museum collections during the past 180 years has created a huge potential for monitoring climate change, the impacts of declining habitat on species, extinctions, and other changes to the ecosystem over time. And now that diverse collections from all the LSA museums are under one roof, researchers and students can integrate, collaborate, and explore more easily.
“The new RMC has a demonstration classroom built into it,” says Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) Professor and Chair Diarmaid Ó Foighil. “For the first time, students in big intro biology lab courses can engage in field trips and research projects involving museum collections. Connecting students with our world-class collections goes hand in hand with a new philosophy of integrating our intellectual resources with students as directly as possible.
“Lead a group on a walk through the collections, and you can see the profound impact that it has on many of the students,” O’Foighil continues. “Their minds are blown, in a good way.”
EEB graduate student Jordan Bemmels has gotten valuable training in the Herbarium’s xylarium, its collection of sticks and wood culled from far-flung places like Sumatra (in Indonesia) and British Honduras (now known as Belize). Xylarium labels describe the specimens in obscure languages such as Batak, Mayan, and Guaraní. Although Sumatrans still speak Batak, the written language has fallen out of use, which doesn’t deter Bemmels from digitizing the descriptive labels and related specimens.
His is one of many ongoing efforts to digitize the 1.8 million Herbarium specimens, and he’s made good headway. The hope is that one day, a scholar across the world who’s fluent in the defunct Indonesian written language will find the scanned Batak label of a U-M specimen online and discover something new.
Branch cuttings from Sumatra, like these specimens in the xylarium that have been added to the Herbarium’s digital collection, bear descriptive labels in the handwritten Batak script that Indonesians no longer use. Photo courtesy of Jordan Bemmels.
Research continues at the RMC satellite campus on the Edmontosaurus and any number of other specimens safe in their jars and drawers. “All of those things are useful for us in studying the past,” says William Sanders, a museum research scientist and preparator. “We want to know those associations, because they help us to make predictions about life on our own planet now.”
While only the skull of the Edmontosaurus will be on display at the new Museum of Natural History, the rest of the skeleton will be available for research, along with other pieces of recent and deep history in the collections at the RMC.
“Paleontology is not a dead science,” Sanders says. The dusted-off bones, historic cultural artifacts, and creatures in formaldehyde were active and alive long ago, but their value in the RMC guarantees continued life.
Biological Sciences Building (BSB)
On central campus, right next to the Ruthven Building. Researchers have already moved into its labs and offices. Students will begin using its classrooms in Fall 2018. The U-M Museum of Natural History (UMMNH) move into the BSB is ongoing; the museum will re-open to the public in Spring 2019.
Research Museums Center (RMC)
Less than five miles from central campus, on Varsity Drive. LSA’s Herbarium headquarters since 2001. The U-M Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, the U-M Museum of Paleontology, and the U-M Museum of Zoology moved into the RMC when renovations finished in Fall 2016. RMC research facilities are open to students and scholars.
On central campus, next to the BSB. Will be preserved and renovated to house classrooms, U-M administration, and the Office of the President.
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