Science Online 2012: A visit to the North Carolina Museum for Natural Sciences

The second of a series of posts chronicling my observations and experiences at Science Online 2012, which I attended last week.

I love museums!  My parents, especially my father, started taking me to science museums and zoos in the Chicago area from a very young age.  I grew up amongst such diverse distractions as dinosaurs, lunar landing modules, ancient Egyptian culture, and dolphin shows!

So when I had an opportunity to tour the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Rayleigh, NC during Science Online 2012, I jumped at the chance!  In fact, I had two chances: the conference reception was held in the museum on Thursday evening, and I signed up for a tour of the facility on Friday afternoon, including some fascinating behind-the-scenes peeks.

It is a wonderful museum, one which is in the process of completing a major expansion to be opened in April.  I thought I’d share some of the photos I took during the trip.

The beginning of our tour focused on some of the unusual natural phenomena to be found in North Carolina itself; many of these have been featured in my Twitter #weirdscifacts this past week!  One of the things I learned: the Carolinas used to be home to the only parrot species native to the eastern United States, the Carolina parakeet, now sadly extinct.

Carolina parakeet

The main floor of the museum also has some magnificent skeletons of whales; the image below is the skeleton of a right whale that was killed in 1876.

Right whale, killed in 1876

The bones of animals are more than decoration; they can often provide evidence of an animal’s life and travails.  For instance, later in our tour, we were shown a fossilized whale rib, which has scratches on it from shark teeth:

Fossilized whale rib

Occasionally, things other than bones can become fossilized, potentially providing a rare glimpse at other aspects of a long-extinct animal’s physiology.  For instance, the museum has a specimen of Thescelosaurus, named “Willo“, found in the Hell Creek formation of northwestern South Dakota.  Willo is almost unique in that it may contain the remains of the dinosaur’s heart!

Thescelosaurus "Willo"

Unfortunately, as I understand it, it is still not entirely clear that the reddish mass in Willo’s chest is in fact a heart and not some naturally occurring formation.

Some specimens are truly impressive!  One of my favorite prehistoric creatures is the giant ground sloth, which in geological terms went extinct practically yesterday:

Giant ground sloth

Other impressive specimens abound!  One of the jewels of the museum’s collection is an Acrocanthosaurus skeleton (Dr. Matthew Francis’ head in photo for scale):

Acrocanthosaurus skeleton

To me, perhaps the most interesting part of the museum was the exhibit about the museum’s history itself: the”museum within a museum”, or “meta-museum”, if you will!  This included a replica of the 1910 workshop of the first curator of the museum, H.H. Brimley:

Replica of 1910 office of H.H. Brimley

It is easy to forget how dramatically museums have changed!  The NCMNS illustrates this with a WWII-era exhibit of a Japanese doll:

Japanese doll

The doll is cute, but the preserved caption is fascinating:

Caption of the "Friendship Doll"

After seeing the public area of the museum, we were treated to a tour of its working areas.  It is easy to forget that natural science museums are typically active research institutions, with a lot of things going on behind the scenes.  We first visited the collections room where the biological specimens are preserved and stored.

Working area of the specimen room

The chamber is truly impressive, lined with cabinets filled with a variety of animal specimens, from bats to birds to primates:

Specimen cabinets

These very silent corridors have a very eerie feel to them, and are filled with preserved specimens not on exhibit:

We moved on from an examination of the animal specimens to a look at fossil remains; here physicist Dr. Matthew Francis got an unpleasant surprise:

Dr. Matthew Francis' unpleasant surprise

I should mention that one of the bonus joys of the tour was going through the museum with Brian Switek of Laelaps and Scicurious of The Scicurious Brain!  Scicurious’ enthusiasm is infectious, and she was filled with fascinating questions that the guides were often hard-pressed to answer!  Brian’s paleontology expertise really showed when looking at the fossils, and he had many intriguing observations to make about specimens that were otherwise unlabeled.  For instance, he spotted the skull of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex wrapped up off to one side:

Juvenile t-rex skull, upside down

I stuck pretty close to Brian and Sci during the tour; I was always interested to hear what they would see or say next!

We were treated to one more interesting specimen: an excellently preserved Edmontosaurus from Hell Creek:

In addition to getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the specimen rooms and labs, during the Science Online reception we were also treated to a “sneak peek” at the new wing of the museum, currently under construction and due to open on April 20 of this year.  The centerpiece of this Nature Research Center will be the SECU Daily Planet, a 3-story globe which will serve as a multimedia center for live science news and presentations.  I took a mini-panorama of the view from the 3rd floor:

The center will include active research labs, and the public will get the opportunity to ask scientists questions about their research!  There’s still a lot of construction to get done by the 20th of April, however, as indicated by a variety of ironically-labelled touchscreens:

Ironically-labelled touchscreens!

I’m looking forward to the opening!  I probably won’t make it there right away, but the Nature Research Center will be open for a full 24 hours on the first day.

I really enjoyed my visit to the museum; looking forward to my next opportunity to visit and to see the new wing!

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3 Responses to Science Online 2012: A visit to the North Carolina Museum for Natural Sciences

  1. Pingback: Science Online 2012: A visit to the North Carolina Museum for … | My Blog

  2. I went with the lemurs this time around (which was an awesome trip in itself), I’ll try to take the museum tour at Science Online 2013

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