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NSG Visit June 4, 2005

Exploring the Museum of the Earth


Donovan A. Shilling

The June 4th, 2005, destination for members of the New Society of the Genesee was the Paleontological Research Institute and Museum located on Route 96 (1259 Trumansburg Road) just north of Ithaca. Led by Alan Oberst, the group arrived at 10:30 AM and was introduced by Alan to Molly, our highly knowledgeable guide who would interpret the Museum of the Earth for us. Recently opened to the public, the new facility offers an outstanding educational experience to the visitor. One report stated that the new museum was a "soaring $11 million celebration of fossil and recent life." Anyone at all curious about our prehistoric past will enjoy a morning or afternoon exploring the museum's neatly presented and well-documented geological exhibits.

Entering the cavernous main gallery, our first impression was one of awe sighting the 44-foot-long skeleton of a North Atlantic Right Whale. The leviathan of the sea was suspended high upon the ceiling of the main gallery. Molly explained the possible extinction of this great mammal relating it to the passing of so many of the Earth's early forms of plant and animal life.

Molly then led us down a long ramp to the exhibit floor on a lower level. The walk led us past the "Rock of Ages; Sands of Time" mural. Created by Barbara Page, it took her over seven years to complete the work.. The talented artist used 544 11 x 11 inch ceramic tiles in bas-relief to construct her unusual mural, It allows the viewer to journey back 540 million years into the past (the Paleozoic Era, 543 million years ago) going from tiles representing the dawn of microscopic life through the geologic eras to those representing life today.

The museum was an outgrowth of the work done by Dr. Gilbert D. Harris (1864-1952) who, as a Cornell geology professor, not only established the institute, but also edited and printed one of the nation's foremost scientific magazines, the Bulletin of American Paleontology. His printing press and related information is exhibited at the initial stage of the lower level museum tour.

Our trip through the vast ground floor exhibit hall first centered on the geologic history of New York State, particularly on the Devonian Period (410-355 million years before present). Continuing on we reached an area devoted to the era known as the Age of Fishes with its exhibit of a giant Plakaderm (Bone Head) fish. A working seismograph and an explanation of the nature of plate tectonics came next.

Other exhibit areas featured the fossil flora and fauna of other geologic eras: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Etc. The Quaternary Period (2.5 million YBP) was represented with an impressive skeleton of the recently unearthed Hyde Park Mastodon. If one likes big, bony, fossil skeletons, this one tops them all, except, of course, the whale we've already mentioned. There's much more to the museum than stated here. We ended our tour thanking Molly, our gracious guide and received complimentary key chains bearing an appropriate dinosaur image. One must walk through the museum's engaging exhibits to genuinely appreciate what is offered here.

Following our extensive museum tour the group drove over to the nearby Glenwood Pines Restaurant overlooking Cayuga Lake. Our lunch was both inexpensive and tasty and was accompanied by a great conversation in a room that Alan Oberst had especially reserved for the occasion.

After lunch Alan provided us with maps containing directions to the overlook of the majestic Taughannock Falls. The dramatic sight of the white veil of ever-cascading water viewed from across the deep intervening chasm was a most fitting end to our Saturday excursion.

© 2005, Donovan A. Shilling
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