Through the Portals
Creation to evolution and extinction at the U-M Museum of Natural History
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
Published in August, 2019
"Gee, I didn't know a museum could be fun!" one boy of middle school age confided to his mother as he raised and lowered his arms, causing an interactive display to race from the smallest to the largest elements in the universe--and back again. And again. And again.
"In my day, natural history museums were rows of glass cases lined with fossils and stuffed animals," a middle-aged man murmured as he listened to a graduate student explaining how the scientists, viewed through large windows, were prepping fossils in their laboratory. "Museums have come a long, long way."
Indeed, they have.
When the new U-M Museum of Natural History officially opened its doors to the public in April 2019, it shattered expectations of stuffed birds and dark corridors. The collections and exhibits have been integrated into the brand-new $261 million Biological Sciences Building, adjacent to the museum's former home in the Ruthven Building. "Fifty percent of the specimens on display are from the old museum, fifty percent are new," director Amy Harris explains.
"We moved four billion years of history into this space," Harris says, beginning a tour of the museum.
First stop: the five-story atrium, where two giant mastodon skeletons lumber along a cast of actual mastodon tracks. Floating overhead are prehistoric whales and a life-size twenty-five-foot model of a flying Quetzalcoatlus pterosaur.
During the move from Ruthven, many dinosaur bones featured in older exhibits had grown too fragile to display; some had crumbled and were unable to take their designated place in the new museum space. "So, we made new plans, switched gears, and replaced a massive dinosaur skeleton with a mural of the western interior seaway of North America and suspended fossils prehistoric reptiles, fish, and birds," Harris says.
In the planetarium, tilt your seat back and admire the thirty-foot dome crafted with nine layers of stainless steel to silence the space. Lights dim and a moment later, the universe appears, thanks to state-of-the-art Digistar technology.
When the program ends, meander through the exhibit "Measuring Time and Space," including a wall where children (of all ages), can determine their height in relation to the natural world. Ten turtles high? Two penguins?
Finally, enter the museum's magnum opus exhibit: "Evolution: Life Through Time," the tale of five periods of mass extinctions, and one celebrating the evolution of humankind. There are panoramas of ancient landscapes, fossils of extinct creatures, re-creations of fossilized fish and mammals, and interactive programs.
The first Great Mass Extinction took place 444 million years ago. The second, "a slow, steady collapse," was completed 358 million years ago. The third and most devastating, 251 million years ago, eradicated between 80 and 90 percent of the earth's species. "The world began to look very different," the portal explains. "The few survivors provided the foundation for the next chapter of evolution."
The Triassic Period that followed saw the oceans begin to diversify during a long period comprising both extinctions and growth. The great titans of the ancient seas appeared, long before whales. Fossil fish swim across exhibits as modern stony corals and reefs began developing. Mammals evolve from a group of hairy warm-blooded reptiles with powerful jaws. A recreation of this furry and ferocious-looking creature frightens a little girl in pink, who scurries to her mother with an "Oh! Ugh!"
In the fifth mass extinction, sixty-six million years ago, 80 percent of the species on earth perished "in a geological instant." As the journey through earth's evolutionary past continues, you come face-to-knees with a giant carnivorous dinosaur, a cannibal called Majungasaurus, which once terrorized fellow inhabitants of Madagascar. Twenty feet long, weighing a ton, with arms only a foot long.
"We still have one hundred 3-D printed skeletons to be installed," Harris says as she moves on to the last portal of the gallery. Here, our human ancestors make their appearance. A display case introduces a three-plus-foot-tall female Australopithecus sediba who roamed South Africa two million years ago. Both a cast and a re-creation of her body, the first of its kind, attracts a crowd of admirers. Nearby, a wall of evolutionary facial skeletons invites visitors to study, touch, and trace the ancient ancestors on our family tree.
There is one final portal, which warns of a future Mass Extinction Number Six. "How can you help prevent extinctions?" it asks. Answers range from properly disposing unused medications and trash to electing officials who are willing to work to preserve the world.
Fifty scientists, graduate students, and faculty members joined museum staff to brainstorm and design the exhibits, along with an outside firm specializing in scientific exhibitions and technological experts. Still to come: gallery exhibits, classrooms, laboratories where visitors can inspect specimens under cutting-edge microscopes, and a table where they can examine real prehistoric specimens.
"This is extraordinary. Really extraordinary," a visitor remarks at the end of the trail.
This article has been edited since it was published in the 2019-2020 Ann Arbor Observer City Guide. The description of the interactive display and a quote from Amy Harris have been corrected (see the following Calls & letters item).
Calls & letters, September, 2019
"Thank you for the delightful article by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds about the new U-M Museum of Natural History in the new City Guide," emailed museum communications manager Amy Dick. "In the sixth paragraph, Amy Harris is quoted as saying something is a dinosaur when it most definitely is not -- which of course one would expect the director of the museum to know. A more accurate description of the fossils would be as follows: "...suspended fossils of prehistoric reptiles, fish, and birds."
A description in the first paragraph also "misidentifies the interactive element," Dick wrote. "It should be an 'interactive video showing the smallest elements to the largest elements of the universe.'"
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