The museum behind the museum

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

I give a lot of tours at the Indiana State Museum. These are mostly “behind-the-scenes” tours, not gallery tours. Visitors can take themselves through the galleries, but behind-the-scenes tours offer much more.

When visitors come into the museum, they see galleries, attend programs, eat at the restaurants or shop at the museum store. They tend to think that’s all there is to a museum. But in reality, what they see is the end product. Most of the work for the galleries (and programs) is done behind the scenes and the public rarely sees any of it. Nor does the public see the actual size of our collection. The artifacts they see in galleries represent only one or two percent of our total collection. The larger the collection, the more of it is in storage. This is true in most museums. Take the Smithsonian for example. Their collection numbers well over 250 million artifacts. Imagine how big their galleries would have to be to show all of their collections. For a large museum like the Indiana State Museum, we show a few thousand artifacts at one time, but we have hundreds of thousands of artifacts in our collection. It’s simply impossible to put everything on exhibit — we would need galleries the size of football fields! That’s why it’s so important to show visitors and other guests what lies behind-the-scenes. I’ve never had a tour participant who didn’t walk away astonished at the size and breadth of our collection. Only then can the public see what a daunting task it is to care for the largest publicly held collection in the state. With a greater understanding of what the casual visitor doesn’t see, a tour guest usually comes away with a greater appreciation for the collection and what it takes to care for it.

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Another reason the public doesn’t see and doesn’t know about the size, diversity or location of the collection is intentional. We do that to maintain the security and environmental integrity of the collection. The collection is actually hidden in eight storage rooms in the Administration building, not the building where the galleries, restaurants and other public facilities are located. The eight storage rooms allow us to store the collection by type of material. Continue reading

What is it?!?

by Sarah Boutwell, Museum Store Sales Associate

Check out this unbelievable creature! Does it remind you of something from the Kevin Bacon movie Tremors

Fossils of this unidentified species were found in a cave in Quilpie, Australia. Several experts have examined this “worm-like” creature and its young ones, but have yet to determine the species. Some of the fossils we sell at our store are from the same cave and are thought to be sponges that inhabited the same living space. What’s truly amazing about these fossils is that they are filled with opal! When held under light, you can see the beautiful colors of the opal shining through the rust colored rock exterior.

The Indiana Store at the Indiana State Museum now has an entire wall dedicated to fossils, rocks and minerals! Many of them are from Indiana and the surrounding states, but we also have some of the rarest fossils in the world. Come check out these fossils and more at the Indiana Store today!

And don’t forget to mark you calendar for GeoFest on Oct. 22, 23 and 24!

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Finishing up at Yankeetown

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History Collections Manager 

Although our dig is winding to a close, the work-pace picks up 10-fold! As with all digs, you end up finding all kinds of stuff at the end. It is one thing you can truly count on as an archaeologist. Working on the riverbank, Kara and I spent the day collecting various soil samples from each layer of the bank. It was particularly funny because Kara — our trusty registrar — thought she was coming out into the field to get away from paperwork. Ha!

Our goal at the riverbank was to bring together various points of research to get a good idea what the environment may have been like throughout prehistory (throughout the history of the banks development). We had all kinds of folks out to help, including geologists and soil scientists. The red and white pins were laid by geologist Ron Counts and mark general areas where we took soil samples. The small pegs at center are where we took our samples for pollen analysis. We were also able to take C/14 samples from some areas up the bank. All of these lines of evidence will hopefully help us reconstruct what this environment may have been like prehistorically.

Landside, the field school was making tremendous headway uncovering feature after feature. Burned posts in place, large pit features (maybe trash/food preparation?), burned soil, a cache of corn … everything indicating a thriving Yankeetown occupation at this location. Students map, photograph and excavate each feature and then screen the excavated soil for artifacts.

Don’t these pictures scream “I love archaeology!”

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Rocks from the final frontier

Written by Peggy Fisherkeller, curator of geology at the Indiana State Museum

One of the best parts of my job is meeting people who take their hobbies to the extreme. I might like to look at antique dresses in a book or in a museum, but probably wouldn’t go beyond that. However, there are those special people: collectors of information and objects that are always gathering more in an effort to quench their addiction.

A grouping of Sikhote-Alin meteorites. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Geological Survey.

Meteorites inspire that kind of collecting. Most meteorites are not particularly attractive — at first. They usually come in varying shades of brown. ‘Lumpy’ would be one way of describing a typically-shaped meteorite.

But then you start to think about it more. That hunk of metal didn’t come from the railroad yard — it came from outer space. It could very likely have come from the core of a long-gone planet, the bits of which have been floating around the void for millennia. Probably only recently did it intersect Earth’s orbit closely enough to be pulled in by gravity. And now there it sits.

We’ve got some sitting here on the first floor outside the R.B. Annis Naturalist’s Lab now through the end of July. The meteorites were selected from two local collections to show a range of types. Personally, it was a pleasure putting it together. I really didn’t know very much beyond the meteorite basics when I first came to work here, but the opportunity to talk with enthusiasts has given me a lot more to think about. Enjoy!

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The secret of geodes

geode011As a person who holds a bit more knowledge on certain obscure topics than the general population, I’m sometimes considered a specialist, at least in regard to rocks and fossils from Indiana. That being the case, I often entertain visitors who bring in bizarre objects for identification. Among the most common objects to come through the door are geodes. A fashionable Indiana rock, geodes are mostly found in Morgan, Monroe, Brown, Lawrence and Washington Counties. Most natives of those counties could tell a geode from an ordinary rock, but those of us not born and raised in south-central Indiana often don’t know the identity of these unique natural objects. Geodes are often suspected to be a number of things, including petrified human heads and dinosaur eggs. Unfortunately, neither of these is true. However, they are a minor mystery to geologists.

geode02Indiana geodes originated about 350 million years ago, along with rocks that were deposited while Indiana was underwater (think of a briny middle-eastern tidal flat – very salty and very shallow). The prevailing theory is that geodes originated as an under-sea-floor nodule of the mineral anhydrite. Conditions changed and the anhydrite was replaced, through groundwater flow, by other minerals, resulting in the vast quantity of geodes that we see in only certain rock layers today. By definition, geodes have a hard chalcedony rind, and can either be hollow, with their walls lined by various crystals, or solid.

Many people collect geodes. In southern Indiana, many a fence row is made up of these hard lumpy spheres. They do have another aesthetic value, though. Crack a geode open and you might just find some spectacular crystals, presented nicely in a bowl.

The museum has a collection on display, but through May, a local geode collector, Bob Harman, has been kind enough to loan us some of his best specimens. These are on display in our first floor natural history gallery.

Peggy Fisherkeller is the curator of geology at the Indiana State Museum.