UM looks for a way to share its natural history collection with the public
Secrets to the past, and possibly the future, may be stashed in the dark confinement of a basement at the University of Montana.
In the bowels of UM's Science Complex is one of the most significant fossil and bone collections in the Northwest, amassed by UM scientists since 1898. Among the treasures: the skull of a cave bear that gamboled about Helena during the last Ice Age and the fossilized shell of a big turtle that swam in the Flathead Valley some 300 million years ago.
But all that announces this cloistered, mysterious world of nearly 100,000 specimens is a slip of paper taped to a locked, steel door that reads: Paleontology Museum.
A select few of the world's top scientists know about this rich vein of North American history. Some come to Missoula specifically to sift through the goods.
And so do UM science students, who wade through the airless, windowless tomb each academic year in pursuit of thesis material or project ideas.
But usually, the only people who have regular access are the museum's one volunteer curator and its part-time, grant-funded student who painstakingly numbers the endless drawers and shelves of items not yet catalogued.
The university's last full-time curator of the museum went the way of the dinosaur during a funding crisis in 1987, said George Stanley, UM geology professor, former Smithsonian Institution geologist and self-appointed volunteer guardian of UM's paleontology collection.
Because of that, the museum is more often locked and dark, rather than alive with curious minds and probing fingers.
As the years tick by and the museum continues to have no permanent curator, Stanley fears that UM's trove will become permanently mothballed if, and when, he decides to retire.
Worse yet, he worries that UM administrators will eventually hand over the responsibilities to Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies. Such an act, he said, would be a tremendous loss for UM students and faculty, and a missed opportunity for Missoula to develop its own landmark natural history museum.
"The fossil archive is everything we know about the past," Stanley said. "And it becomes increasingly important, particularly, now with global change issues and concerns because right behind that is our fossil collection - it is our record and it holds some answers."
The world is entering what some scientists believe is a sixth massive extinction, Stanley said. The world is losing species at an unprecedented rate. Now, more than ever, UM needs to find ways to support and preserve the campus' various fossil, mammal and plant collections, he said.
"Tracking the diversity of life revolves around these collections, around the permanent collection of fossil data," Stanley said.
"Failure of many people to realize this fact, and to relegate these collections to interesting side shows or basements - not something in the mainstream - just represents their misunderstanding of the value of natural history collections in general."
Not only do these remnants serve as encyclopedias of the past, they also raise scientific questions.
Such is the case of one of UM's most prized items, the Burgess Shale collection.
Embedded in slabs of smoky shale are shapes of soft-bodied creatures that no one can explain. They come from just over the border, from Canada, but from a world long ago - some 530 million years past - when Earth first exploded in what is now dubbed The Big Bang.
"Some are weird and wacky and have no counterparts today," Stanley said. "They really do look like they could have been dropped out of the sky by aliens, but more likely, they are the failed experiments of evolution."
The freaks of nature came to Missoula by way of Horace Clapp, a sharp-minded University of Montana president - a geologist by education - who in the 1930s bartered for the fossils with the Smithsonian, which wanted some of Montana's crab-like fossils called trilobites.
The swap turned out infinitely better for UM, Stanley said. Now the university is among just a handful of institutions that can legally own these wonders, which are the envy of the science world.
"These items go back to where it all began," Stanley said. "You can't buy or collect them - they're that rare."
But the stories these ancient life forms could tell - if the right questions were asked - remain, for the most part, he said, silenced in shale and locked away in a cabinet the public has little or no access to.
Across campus in the Health Sciences Building, David Dyer, full-time curator of UM's Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum, is also buried in treasures. There is no more room in his cramped quarters to store, use and display the 21,000-some specimens of irreplaceable birds and mammals.
From the ceiling hang golden eagles. A rhinoceros skull overwhelms the top of a bookshelf. Snow geese and their Arctic cousins line up across the tops of cabinets.
Gibbon monkeys, Russian ferrets, vampire bats, grizzly skulls, black bear paws, sea lion skins, walrus tusks, bobcat pelts, red-winged blackbirds and a stuffed, rare white buffalo calf are just a few of things that fill the classroom-sized museum to its limit.
UM also has the Herbarium, which bursts with more than 121,000 rare and extinct plants, stacked and stored on top of each other in the Natural Sciences Building. It too is a museum with no room to grow.
Research in both museums is truly an elbow-to-elbow learning experience, Dyer said. Because of the finite space, public tours are limited, and by appointment only.
"Behind these locked doors are so many interesting things," Dyer said. "To get people to see them and get them out to the public would be wonderful. Technically they belong to the public."
Stanley, unlike Dyer, must juggle teaching duties and field research with accommodating scientists from other institutions and countries who come to explore UM's collection.
If the researchers can't come to UM, Stanley finds and packages the specimens they are in search of, and mails out the items. Like a librarian, he must catalogue and track who has what, and where.
Because most of the items are property of the state of Montana or the federal government, they must be stored in public institutions and made available to anyone who wants to see them, Stanley said.
"It is a gold mine for attracting outside people," Stanley said of the subterranean wonders.
But when material is sent out to researchers, or to museums that borrow items for display, UM loses its power to draw scientists.
"It's troubling, because to send the collections out takes away from learning here," he said. "Then researchers are reluctant to return items because they are concerned for their safety and management; they know that there is no permanent curator here."
Sometimes, getting scientists to return the borrowed goods turns into a battle, he said.
Jack Horner, Montana's dinosaur guru, state paleontologist and curator of Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies, said he would like to see UM's fossils moved to Bozeman.
"The collection here at the Museum of the Rockies includes about 25,000 specimens, all of which are either on display or actively being studied," Horner said.
"The worst thing for any of these collections is to have them squirreled away where they are not accessible to research."
Horner admits to hoarding some dinosaur bones he borrowed from UM some 20 years ago, and he's quick to say he won't return them until UM dedicates financial resources and people to care for the collection.
"I'll gladly send back these two fossils when the conditions at UM are favorable for their care," Horner said. "As the state paleontologist of Montana, that's my responsibility."
But his preference, Horner said, is to move UM's fossils to his facility, even if it creates a new twist on the old Griz-Cat rivalry.
"I'm just as concerned over the Missoula collection as I am of this one," Horner said. "But if they aren't going to take care of it, we are the state museum - we would just go get it, and I've suggested that."
"When I left Princeton (University), the school decided to get rid of its paleontology collection and they sent it to Yale - their rival school," he said. "When they did it, they said Yale was the only one worthy of it, so they turned the collection over."
Who has the collection isn't the point, Horner said. It's about preserving Montana's past for the future, "because we so easily forget our own connection to our ecology when we ignore our evolutionary past."
"The most important thing is the care of the collection and it is important that it stays here in our state," he said. "They are our state's prehistoric treasures."
UM is not likely to hand over the goods, said Lloyd Chesnut, UM's vice president for research and development.
"It's an extremely valuable collection we don't intend to lose," Chesnut said. "The collection itself makes UM unique because there are specimens there that are exclusive to UM. We need to not only save it, but have it usable for students and the public."
Although UM has a long wish list of things to improve or get done, Chesnut said he is rolling up his sleeves to find a financial way to improve the situation, and he likes what he's hearing in other corners of the community.
UM science librarian Barry Brown is trying to land funding to create a "virtual museum" that would display the items on line.
And working quietly behind the scenes, but getting louder each year with their intent, is a handful of community members who hope to develop an interactive natural history museum to keep UM's fossils in Missoula, and show off the fascinating range of creatures in Dyer's care.
It is a partnership that has the beginnings of a beautiful relationship, said Chesnut, who believes it might be a way to give UM's specimens new life.
"We have people come by every day looking for the Missoula natural history museum, but we don't have one," said Janel Queen, executive director of the Nature Center at Fort Missoula. "They come here expecting and wanting to see the kind of stuff in George's basement and Dave's store room."
Because of growing public demand, Queen and her staff are cultivating a fledgling natural history museum backed by grants and donations, at Fort Missoula. A modest showroom is now open, filled with a few claws, skulls, bones, and fossils from Dyer's and Stanley's museums.
"Right now, this is truly a grass-roots effort - but we are trying hard to find a way to do it," Queen said. "These two men have phenomenal knowledge, and they have things in their care that no else has anywhere, and most of it is being mothballed. Unless you are a school and request a tour, it is in a locked storage facility and isn't being shared."
"We continue to upgrade and formalize our plan, write grants and seek other funding for what we hope will one day be a big museum," she said. "This isn't the Smithsonian, but everybody has to start somewhere."
Come the first of June, the center will premiere its docent program - a group of 10 volunteer museum guides who've steeped themselves in the history and stories of the modest, borrowed collection.
"We are all really excited," said Ellen Knight, a museum docent and former director of the Rock Creek Trust.
"It is so important and fun to learn about life long ago and how it has changed, or become extinct," she said. "Especially now. We are in some pretty tough times and we need to know what we can keep, what we should keep. We don't live in the natural world the way we used to, but it doesn't just need us - we need it."
For other UM scientists, the idea of a Missoula natural history museum just makes sense.
"The bottom line is, we've got a pretty good collection not just in paleontology, but we also have a good mineralogical collection and we have an excellent bird and mammal collection," said Steve Sheriff, director of UM's geology department.
"I'd like to see not just a natural history museum, but have a museum where students and public can come together to see what kind of research is being done," he said. "We have so much research activity here, it would be neat to have a venue for that. From the UM perspective, we would get more Montana high school students on campus - it would be an incredible draw."
"My experience," he said, "at places like the Smithsonian is that there's always a huge number of people who are there oohing and aahing at the displays.
"I don't see any reason UM or Missoula couldn't have the same thing."