I confess I did not expect the fish tour to be very exciting, but I was amazed when we were led down steep cement stairs deep into the basement and found ourselves surrounded by one of the largest fish collections in the world–hundreds of thousands of fish specimens collected by generations of U-M faculty and grad students. Shelf after shelf after dusty shelf of all manner of fish, the neat cursive handwriting on the old-fashioned Mason jars revealing more quickly than do the inscribed places and dates that these fish were collected in a different age, a different world. Up in the lab, we looked at some of those hundred-year-old fish samples dyed red under the microscope while professors explained their research.

The museums of anthropology, paleontology, zoology, and natural history are all housed in the Ruthven Museums Building and together are known as the University of Michigan Natural Science Museums. Behind the Scenes Day is a rare opportunity to venture beyond those locked double doors at the ends of the hallways and peer into the collections areas, research laboratories, and other spaces not usually open to the public.

On the popular dinosaur tour, U-M paleontology professor Daniel Fisher introduced us to Lyuba, the perfectly preserved 40,000-year-old baby mammoth discovered by reindeer herders in Siberia. He talked about his research, as well as about the filming of a 2009 National Geographic documentary (his scenes were shot at the Law School). And he told us about (because Lyuba was too large for normal medical scanners) how her X-ray, CT scans, and MRI had to be done on industrial scanners at GE Healthcare and Ford Motor Company–an incredible story of town and gown.

In the paleontology lab, huge vacuum hoses hang from the ceiling over large worktables, where fossils sit half-excavated from stone, fans and vents roaring to filter away the constant dust.

Finally the basement, cluttered and chaotic. One cannot help but imagine Indiana Jones down here, among these rows of long tables covered with fossils of all shapes and sizes, fighting off a bunch of bad guys–whacking one with a fossilized leg bone and then clunking another with a fossilized skull. Stretched out the length of one aisle was another gem of U-M paleontology, a long skeleton of the ancestor to the whale known as a Basilosaurus. Here we learned that a professor of Near Eastern literature, who had been studying ancient stories of sea serpents with long pointed mouths large enough to swallow sailors whole and wondering how ancient desert people could have come up with such inventions, saw the Basilosaurus, unearthed from those same deserts, and recognized it as the serpent in those ancient stories.

This year’s Behind the Scenes Day is Sunday, February 12. Sign up early for tours!