Building a Mastodon

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When Mike Smith arrived at the Indiana State Museum before the new building opened in 2002, he had no idea just how extensive his skill at exhibit design would become. In addition to his museum work, Smith held studio space at the Stutz Building for nearly 10 years as an abstract steel sculptor. Turns out, his background in fine arts was to be put to the test!

Today, Mike Smith is one of an elite group of people in the world to have mounted the real-bone skeleton of a three-ton mastodon; a real Ice Age giant. His background in welding and steelwork was the perfect combination to take on the project of mounting the 292 bones that make up this mammal.

Prior to Smith’s arrival at the museum, huge bones were discovered in the muck of a peat farm in northern Indiana. It was 1998 and, once the Buesching family realized what they had, the mastodon bones were carefully removed by a team from Indiana University-Purdue University Ft. Wayne, and eventually brought to the Indiana State Museum. Incredibly, more than 80 percent of the skeleton was recovered. A radiocarbon date showed the mastodon, named “Fred” in honor of the senior Buesching, to be 13,020 to 13,760 years old.

Ron Richards, the museum’s Chief Curator for Science and Technology is excited about the mastodon, and is finally able to recover from what he refers to as “separation anxiety” following the 1933 loss of a major find.

Richards explained how then-curator Vern Patty responded to a ‘mastodon call’ in northern Indiana. The skeleton was excavated and brought back to the museum, but then the owner contested rights to it, took the matter to court and won, eventually selling the Indiana mastodon to the Denver Science Museum, where it still resides.

“All these years of working in the field and we had nothing complete like this to show for it … until now,” said Richards.

Another issue museums often face, Richards says, is that key parts of a skeleton are often missing or in bad shape. The head, for example, can be broken by heavy equipment when it is initially found in a farmer’s field, etc. Then, when the mount is made, a museum might ‘borrow parts,’ turning mounts into a composite of several animals.

The Buesching mastodon is thus a prized specimen because more than 80 percent of it is real bone from a single beast, not casts like the majority of mounted specimens you see at many museums. Richards adds that Fred is a work of art, with gently curving steel supports and each bone of the spinal column mounted “like a gemstone.”

While it was decidedly less expensive to mount the mammal in-house at the Indiana State Museum, this was an unusual course of action, and dollars still had to be raised to pay for preservation and mounting. In response, museum leadership launched the creative “Buy-A-Bone” campaign allowing the public to sponsor individual bones or give them as gifts. In return, sponsors received an actual bone fragment from one of the museum’s many digs, and a certificate of authenticity from chief curator Richards. Support has come from a wide cross section. For example, one of the bones was sponsored by an elementary school “penny drive”; the assembly process received a financial boost from a grant by the LDI 100th Anniversary Celebration Cultural Partnership.

Now that Fred is complete and in place in the museum’s Nina Mason Pulliam gallery, the soft-spoken Smith is “mostly relieved,” he says, “and somewhat proud, but also thankful for the help from several staff members.” His family and friends are bragging about him on social media. And while Smith took a brief moment to bask in the glow of success, he quickly moved on to work on other museum exhibits.

Meanwhile, Fred stands proudly, awaiting the November opening of Indiana’s Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons which explores how the Indiana State Museum has excavated more such burial sites than any other institution in the state. The bones reveal what the museum learned about their lives and their deaths in Indiana, some 13,000 years ago.

**For timed-release video of a portion of the mounting process, please visit our YouTube page:

The Hoosier Harvest: Family, Food & Fun

Amazing Maize in Indiana

You probably already know that Indiana is one of the top agricultural states in the U.S. In fact, it’s in the top five for the production of corn, soybeans, popcorn, tomatoes, peppermint, chicken eggs, ducks and ice cream. In Indiana, there are a total of 61,000 farms adding up to 14.7 million acres. So, this October, the Indiana State Museum invites Hoosiers to relish in the bountiful harvest of Indiana’s rich soil through sampling events, workshops, hands-on activities and food.

 The Hoosier Harvest event, lasting throughout the month of October, has special weekend events and on going daily activities for the entire family that dive into the rich and diverse agricultural heritage through conversing with area urban and rural farmers, growing, processing and canning own food and learning the history of farming in Indiana.

 Weekend events include the Harvest Jubilee, Oct. 1 through 3, which features “Bodacious Gourd Birdhouses” that you can make and take.   Oct. 9 and 11 is the Crocked, Sauced and Pickled event (including a workshop where you can make refrigerator pickles); and Oct. 16 and 17 is the Urban Fresh event, with composting and rain barrel workshops and a Farmer’s Chic Buffet.

 For more information about this fun-for-all celebration,  call 317.232.1637 or visit

Contributed by Chris Della Rocco, Indiana State Museum.


The Turner Garden

Contributed by Donovan Miller, Master Gardener and Museum Volunteer

Just in front of the museum, above the parking garage and out along Washington Street is the Turner Garden, a small green space you may never have noticed. But as you drive down the parking ramp, catch a glimpse of flowering plants above and beside you. This is the Turner Garden presently designated as “Wildflower Meadow.”

Over the spring and summer a group of volunteers began renovation to update the plot. The goal is to replicate a Midwest prairie — typical of the grasslands of the Great Plains. Devoid of trees, this area will feature native grasses and forbs (prairie flowers) in an approximate ratio of 50/50 grasses and flowers. The project is being attacked in sections with an eye to completion in four years.

The plan to make changes in the garden arose with the recognition that two species of plants, Rosinweed and Bee Balm, were becoming dominant in the plot. Without attention it appeared that we would gradually see only a tall yellow flowering plant, Rosinweed, and the violet of Bee Balm. Though attractive native plants, these were crowding out the brilliant orange of Butterfly Weed, the white flowers and bluish foliage of Wild Indigo and many other natives. Installation of the first section is now complete. Note photos for a contrasting view before and after renovation.

An inviting wood-chip path has been cut through the growth to give up-close access to the plants, insect and bird life. This time of year the goldfinches and other seeding-eating birds are in profusion. The pollinating bees and other insects are everywhere to be viewed at a safe distance. Come take a walk, see all the color and fauna activity along the path. You may catch a glimpse of a mouse scurrying across the path. Lift your eyes to the museum roof where a resident red-tailed hawk may be waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting rodent. In the center of the city, at the Indiana State Museum, lives this vibrant slice of nature … a true respite from the bustle of the city.

Looking for memories of the L.S. Ayres Tea Room

Written by Susan Johnson, Retail Operations Manager at the Indiana State Museum

One of the most interesting parts of my job handling retail operations for the museum is the opportunity to work with our curators and staff to develop new things to sell in the museum store. Along that line, I realized when I took over this position a few months back, that our ever popular L.S. Ayres Tea Room Cookbook is now 12 years old. Seems to me like this is a good time to put together a second edition. L.S. Ayres published hundreds of recipes in the old employee publications and newspapers through the years and I’ve had so many people ask me why certain recipes were left out of the cookbook. Cuts had to be made somewhere, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to locate more of those old recipes to share.

This will not be a small project and it’s going to take a little time. Right now I’m shooting to have this second edition published for Mother’s Day of 2011. We’ll see if we can make that self-imposed deadline. I’ve asked a small group of people to help me out with this project so I can ensure that we move forward. Jourdan Struck, one of our new staff members with the museum store, will be helping me research and test recipes. I’ve also asked her to write about her journey for our museum blog. Jourdan is enthusiastic, loves to cook and has a journalism degree from Ball State so I’m excited to have her on board. Katherine Gould, the Assistant Curator of Cultural History for the Indiana State Museum, is helping us wade through several boxes of old Ayres documents and photographs from the archives to help us in our search for unpublished recipes. Along the way she will be scanning recipes and old menus for our digital archives. I’m also happy to say that Head Chef Jon Michael Gioe, with the L.S. Ayres Tea Room at the museum, has volunteered to help us out along the way with testing and interpreting the recipes we find. He’ll give this second edition some cooking credibility.

Along with collecting recipes and articles about the Tea Room for our second edition, we’re also going to take this opportunity to collect some Tea Room memories from our visitors that we might add to the book. So please, if you have any old recipes from the Tea Room or a memory you’d like to share, please let us know. I’m sure we can use all the help we can get.

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Lincoln in the House

Museum curators have been incredibly busy lately, now that Lincoln is “in the house.” Hundreds of artifacts that make up “our” portion of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection* are being unpacked, cataloged, inspected, researched and generally readied for exhibition. The excitement is building, as media are becoming aware of the collection’s treasures.

Here’s one piece that I was able to see; this flag is unique for a couple of reasons. It was at Ford’s Theatre the night of Lincoln’s assassination, for one. It is also unique in that it has just 13 stars, most likely representing the original 13 states.

Dale Ogden, Indiana State Museum Chief Curator, with Ford's Theatre flag

Dale Ogden, Indiana State Museum Chief Curator, with Ford's Theatre flag

*(The LFFC was donated to the State of Indiana in partnership with the ACPL by Lincoln Financial Foundation in December of 2008. The Indiana State Museum will be home to all 3-D items while most archival objects will reside at the ACPL.)

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Straight From the Front Lines

The following report comes to you from Aaron Braithwaite and Katy Harvey, Museum Program Specialists at the Indiana State Museum. Both give an inside look into the action that took place at the Indiana State Museum on March 28 during the 4th Annual Civil War Drill.

civil_war_drill_01“I never thought once in my life I’d be serving in the military, but there I was in the Union Army, ‘fresh fish’ as they called me. Standing there with my newly issued rifle we drilled, marching together to prep for battle. On such a beautiful day I don’t think any of us expected what was to come, but as we marched on, shots rang out! A Confederate ambush! Quickly we gathered and returned fire; splitting into two groups. As the main group kept the southern soldiers pinned, three others including myself pressed from the east, flanking the Confederates’ position. With minimal losses victory was quickly ours! I guess I didn’t realize just how dangerous working at the museum could be.” (Aaron Braithwaite)

civil_war_drill_02“Like most days, I began my day began by photographing the soldiers practicing their morning drills. The troop had been drilling intensively for the past week in anticipation of a Confederate attack. During the morning of March 28, the captain caught wind of Confederate movement to the south, and sent three soldiers to scout the area. I grabbed my camera just in time to capture the scouting team face to face with Confederate soldiers. The three soldiers hurried back to the troop to warn them of the approaching danger. I heard the captain order his troops to fall into ranks and prepare for battle. As the soldiers marched forward, I was able to photograph the pride and hesitation in the new recruit’s faces. Suddenly, the Confederate soldiers fired! Although new and inexperienced, the recruits charged courageously forward to fight and protect the Union. The troop did lose a few good soldiers that day, but was able to stop the Confederates from advancing farther north. Although my day started as any other, it ended with me in the center of an ambush photographing a battle between the Union and Confederates.” (Katy Harvey)

The 4th Annual Civil War Drill was presented by members of the 1st Irish Infantry of the 35th Indiana Volunteers, a local Civil War re-enactors group. The group presents during the last Saturday in March each year. During the presentation, visitors get a glimpse of civilian and military life during the Civil War.

Chattering Children

There’s something about the excited chatter of a multitude of children’s voices…maybe it doesn’t have this effect on you, but it always puts me in a better mood.  These day-campers from Carmel-Clay’s “Vacation Station” were obviously having a blast at the Indiana State Museum today, as part of their weekly field trip series.  Ah, the lazy days of summer and to be 10 again…

They came to see the Imax movie, “Hurricane on the Bayou,” by the way…it raised lots of questions, according to a camp counselor.  Better hurry to see it;  next week is the last week of the engagement!