Ways of the dinosaur
There are fossil treasures in two Reno museums
The Discovery Museum on Center Street was hectic on a Thursday morning in November. Three school buses sat parked in a line outside. Inside, peals of laughter from their young passengers echoed down the corridor.
In the atrium, Patrick Turner, the museum’s vice president of marketing and communications, looked up at the enormous skeletal cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex—the centerpiece of the Discovery’s current temporary exhibition.
The skeleton is one of two replicas of a fossil specimen known as “Sue.” These casts are the property of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, which also owns the real thing. In the nearly 18 years since the real Sue was unveiled in Chicago, the replicas have made the rounds of museums across the globe.
With constituent parts ranging from mechanical models of different T. rex anatomy to bone casts and text materials, the A. T. rex Named Sue exhibition takes up a lot of space. Work with the Field Museum began in October 2016 for Sue’s May debut in Reno. Some of this time was spent waiting on the exhibition to finish a turn in Boise, Idaho. Another part was spent on the logistics of fitting the 42-foot-long Sue cast and its accompanying materials into the Discovery’s space.
A T. rex Named Sue is the second traveling exhibition the Discovery has hosted. Turner considers it a coup for the museum—something, he said, that wasn’t fathomable back in the museum’s planning phase, when a community board was moving forward before there were even experienced museum professionals involved.
Turner pointed out that the traveling exhibition before this one—Monster Fish—was actually larger. But Sue, it seems, is making the bigger impression.
“We are projecting to be over 210,000 visitors this year—largely because of Sue,” he said. That’s 30,000 more visitors than the museum reported in 2016.
Sue, according to the Field Museum, is the largest, best preserved and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen ever found. The documentary Dinosaur 13 documents Sue’s discovery and an ensuing battle over ownership of her remains. Long story short, she’s a very famous example of the world’s most famous dinosaur species.
However, she’s just one of many fossils kept in museums across the country. In fact, many of these pieces of natural history have been all but forgotten after being pulled from the earth and stored in more traditional repositories.
Even in Reno, there is a wealth of paleontological resources.
The W. M. Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum has sat on the north side of the University of Nevada, Reno quad since it opened in 1908. It houses a collection of objects ranging from minerals and ores to historical mining artifacts and fossils. Only some of it is from Nevada.
“A lot of it really spans the globe,” said museum curator Garrett Barmore. Around the turn of the 20th century, it was common for museums to take a more encyclopedic approach, whereas, said Barmore, “Today, we’re more focused on what we’re good at, which are the Nevada aspects.”
He estimates the museum has about 100,000 objects in total—and he’s in charge of all of them.
“The last time the Keck Museum had a full-time employee was 1936,” Barmore said.
After that, he explained, the museum was only staffed intermittently, when professors on campus took an interest in it. Barmore got the job in 2013 and is the first trained museum professional to ever hold it. He’s also the museum’s only employee. The result, he said, is many, many decades’ worth of catch-up work to do.
“This is something that a lot of museums struggle with—because records keeping and cataloging and collections management takes a lot of resources, to follow best practices,” Barmore said.
In most museums, he said, “record keeping is very hit-and-miss the further back you go. And, also, in a place like this, where there’s really only one professional employee, when there’s turnover, things can get lost. For example, pretty much all the records I have for the paleontology collection is what is on labels on the objects and a card catalog that has a lot of gaps.”
Barmore has spent a great deal of time in the last four years attempting to address this. With the help of volunteer graduate students, he’s been going drawer by drawer through the museum’s collections, recording the available information on each object in a digital database. And he’s getting a better idea of what the museum has.
At least a few of the pieces likely belong to bureaus of the Department of the Interior, whose museum collections are second in size only to those of the Smithsonian Institute. Objects like these were, at some point, left in trust at non-DOI institutions like the Keck Museum. But the DOI’s Office of the Inspector General released a report in 2009 saying that its respective departments had largely failed over the years to keep track of what they’d sent to different museums.
“The majority of our collection is mineralogical and geological,” Barmore said. “I don’t have an exact number for the size, but to kind of give you an idea of the scale, [paleontology] makes up about six cabinets of the entire museum. We have about 60 in the museum.”
According to Barmore, most of the paleontology collection is “comprised of small invertebrates, like trilobites and ammonites,” but in his cataloging quest, he has run across some significant pieces, too. Among them is the jaw of a Helicoprion, a shark species that swam the Permian seas about 290 million years ago and was unique for the shape of its jaw—an arresting Fibonacci spiral housing rows of buzzsaw teeth. It was discovered in Nevada’s Humboldt Range in 1937 by Dr. Harry Wheeler of the university’s department of geology but, according to Barmore, was thought to be lost for some time. Now, it’s on display.
And Barmore said the museum is doing more than back cataloging. A new exhibit opened recently, featuring original stock certificates signed by Western figures like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Nevada political boss George Wingfield. For Barmore, the exhibition has more than historical significance. It’s a reflection of museum curation done right, using the best practices of the American Alliance of Museums. That means future generations won’t find these exhibit materials and wonder what they are and where they came from.