REVIEW — The Gray Fossil Site & Natural History Museum

Ryan’s been feeling pretty bummed about the sporadic-ness (sporacity? sporacitude?) of the podcast, so to make him feel better I promised I’d post another museum experience for y’all. Imagine how horrified I was to discover that I haven’t posted a thing since October of aught-eleven! It’s about time I righted this wrong, and so I bring you excerpts from my trip to the Gray Fossil Site and Natural History Museum. Enjoy!

Gray Fossil Site and Museum exterior

saber-tooth cats and tapirs and bears, oh my!

“I was not a particularly happy camper this morning, having woken up balls-early for a road trip out to Boone, NC. Thankfully, my mood had vastly improved by the time we reached the Gray Fossil Site/Museum outside Johnson City, TN, and I was able to fully enjoy all the specimens, exhibits, and the dig site.

I went to the museum with a group of vertebrate paleontologists, and each one commented gleefully on the cushy setup — “the dig areas are just meters away from the prep lab and collections. METERS!” I’ve found that you can do two things to make a paleontologists very happy: offer him/her a beer, or offer him/her a dig site on museum land with a specially designed prep lab nearby. Yes, paleontologists are simultaneously easy to please and exceedingly exacting in their expectations. I, on the other hand, was just happy to get a behind-the-scenes tour with some of the lead scientists.

We started on the main museum floor, with a video presentation explaining the history of the Gray Fossil Site. The story starts about 5 million years ago with a limestone cave that collapsed to form a sinkhole, where Miocene-epoch fauna came to eat, drink, be merry (or not), die, and sink to the bottom. Minerals seeped into their bones, layers of sediment settled on top of older layers of sediment, and lots of time went by until — voilà! — there were many many fossils to be found. But by whom? The Tennessee Department of Transportation, of course! In May of 2000, while preparing to make a new highway, TDOT unearthed some bones, which were originally thought to be from the Pleistocene epoch (think ice age). Once they discovered the alligator skull, though, they knew they were looking at a much warmer climate, so the site had to be much older.

The state government worked with Eastern Tennessee State University to protect and preserve the site. Not only that, but they decided to build a 33,000 square foot natural history museum on site, so we the public could better appreciate the significance of the find. The museum has been open since 2007, and the educational annex since 2011, and it seems to be growing, with more traveling exhibitions planned, as well as a lecture series. The dig site itself has grown in the last year, since the museum was finally able to buy some of the surrounding land (the economic downturn had a positive side, it turns out). All in all, it’s a great tale of scientific discovery.

The introductory film definitely covers all this history, but doesn’t quite capture the thrill felt by the scientific community. Perhaps it’s the oddly placed homages to horror/slasher films. (I’m not kidding.) Forget the portentous opening shots of teenagers walking over a field, not knowing what lies beneath — at multiple points the film employed “killer cam” style first-person POV shots, clearly supposed to be a Miocene mammal running through the woods, but the rumbling and snorting evoked werewolves more than tapirs.

Gray Fossil Site diorama

Alligator vs. Tapir

After the movie, you enter the main exhibition gallery, with its fabulous dioramas full of painted wildlife and articulated skeletons. The museum treats its specimens with loving respect, which is evident from the lighting and presentation. There are a fair number of hands-on components, such as casts of various bones and carapaces, a sample dig pit where you get to find specimens and bring them to another station for identification purposes, touch-screen computer games, as well as pull-out displays. Well, the pull-out displays are meant to be interactive, but there’s no real sense reciprocity between the exhibit element and the visitor. While the contents of each case are meant to answer a particular question, the questions themselves aren’t ones the visitor would necessarily pose. Beverly Serrell wrote a book on label writing that I highly recommend, and she notes that while it’s very easy to add a question mark, it’s actually quite hard to find a question that comes off as real and not as condescending. When you read a label saying “do plants fossilize?” and there’s a drawer right next to it, is there any real doubt what the answer will be? It’s hardly a surprise, so there’s no real point in making it a question as opposed to a statement. I know it sounds like I’m being nit-picky, but it’s a simple thing that could be so easily changed, and it does affect the visitor’s experience when they feel like they’re having a genuine relationship with the museum.

Speaking of little things that make the museum experience delightful, I love it when exhibit designers come up with quirky ways of explaining a particular topic. At one point, the exhibition changes focus from ecosystem interactions in the Miocene to how the landscape transitioned over the millennia. In order to showcase these gradual shifts, the museum came up with a series of “weather”, “traffic” and “news” reports from different distinct periods. Wondering what to wear during the Pleistocene, or which critters are hogging the roads during the Paleocene? Pick up the phone to find out!

The last section of the main exhibition deals with the modern-day end of the Gray site: rather than focusing on ecosystems, it addresses how scientists know what they do about the fossils. From relative dating techniques (not to be confused with Appalachian-style romance) to mold and cast creation, it gives you a good idea of what goes on in the labs upstairs. If that’s not enough, visitors can volunteer to help out with the field work or in the preb lab. I’m going to skip over the exhibit elements (gasp – sacrilege!) in favor of talking about the prep lab, collections and field site, which I got to see up close and in person.”

If you’re really interested in learning more about the prep lab, the infinite regression of tapirs, butvar 76 (a.k.a. “spidey glue”), and Miocene rhino sex, you can find the rest of the article at The Juli Theory.


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