15 June 2009

Save the UW Geology Museum

It is, of course, stating the obvious to point out that these are economically difficult times. Everyone is feeling the pinch, and universities are no exception. Sadly, I have found myself in Laramie not long after the University of Wyoming has announced several budget cuts and that prominent among them is the closure of the Museum of Geology. This has, not surprisingly, created an uproar in the paleontological community, as the primary focus of the museum is the state's fossil record. Many people have pointed out that the museum's operating costs are small relative to the university's overall budget. They have pointed out that Brent Breithaupt (one of paleontology's true characters, as anyone who has attended an SVP auction can attest) will be out of a job. They have pointed out that the museum is one of the largest and most important in the Mountain West, that it is home of one of only five Apatosaurus skeletons anywhere in the world and of "Big Al," the only Allosaurus ever to get its own program on BBC and one of the most well-known and remarkable dinosaur fossils anywhere. All of these are excellent points, but I'd like to approach the issue from a slightly different angle.
The American West in general is justifiably famous for its paleontological resources, but even by the standards of this mother lode of fossils Wyoming stands alone. It is most famous for its dinosaurs. Ask anyone what their favorite dinosaur was as a child, and it will almost certainly be from Wyoming: Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Tyrannosaurus are all local products. The Wyoming record of Cenozoic vertebrates is equally rich. The database I've been compiling as part of my dissertation research is full of specimens from the eastern part of the state, where some of the world's finest Miocene mammal faunas have been uncovered. Spectacular as these faunas are, they pale in comparison to those from a few million years earlier and a few hundred miles to the east in the Bridger Basin, home of what is probably the best sequence of Paleoecene and Eocene beds on the planet. Fossils here are not just plentiful, they are gorgeous. Herring-like fish from the Green River Formation are preserved in the millions and in exquisite detail, along with crocodiles, stingrays, birds, gars, bats, and other Eocene lake dwellers. Go to any of the great museums out east, and you will see fossils from Wyoming. You will see lots of them, because there are few - if any - places on Earth with as rich a paleontological heritage.
By deciding to close down the UW Geology Museum, the university has turned its back on this heritage. Knowing that their state has produced a fossil bestiary more spectacular and more diverse than those of most countries should be a point of pride for Wyomingites. The museum has, until now, done an admirable job inspiring interest in and teaching about the state's fossil record. It has shown generations of visitors that the land on which they live is not only gorgeous and unique now, but has been for millions of years, and that Wyoming's celebrated wildlife is heir to a long and spectacular tradition. If the museum closes, it won't just be the university that feels its loss; a truly important public institution and point of state pride will have disappeared.
The museum has put together a petition, if you're interested in doing something to try to counteract the university's mistake. I particularly urge paleontologists to make their voices heard; even if you have no connection to the UW museum, I know we all care too much about the future of our field to see a precedent like this set.

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