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I have been going to Mid-America Museum in Hot Springs, AR for many years now. I even got married there. Nevertheless, there were a few things that always frustrated me. They had a mastodon skeleton in the entry way, which was great, but there was no real signage with it. It was just there, with no context at all. But more than anything else, I despised the sign they had next to a sauropod track next to the mastodon. Two incredible dinosaur trackways have been found in Arkansas and Mid-America is one of the few places you can see anything of the trackways. But the footprint, again, had no context and the sign had the sauropods wading around in swamps, straight out of a 1950s drawing. I repeatedly told them about the sign, I even offered to make them a new one, but to no avail.
So when I heard about the museum shutting down for several months to be completely renovated, I hoped they would fix some of these things. Mid-America Museum is now open again and I got the chance to visit it recently. My verdict? They did a great job, better than I even dared hope. Like anything else, there are still a few things they could do to improve it, but the earth science exhibits are well worth taking some time to go see them. It’s a completely new museum. You should definitely check it out.
To go along with the radical renovations, it is now the Mid-America Science Museum and Donald W. Reynolds Center. The Reynolds Foundation donated $7.9 million (most places say 7.8 million, but that is because most people don’t know how to properly round, most people just truncate, 7.88 does not round to 7.8), without which the renovations could not have been done. Many of the old exhibits the museum was known for are still there, such as the Tesla coil and moving art structures, but I am going to focus on the earth science exhibits here. There are many other places you can read about the other exhibits, such as this one.
The main exhibit focusing on earth science is called Arkansas Underfoot. It is located, appropriately enough, next to the Arkansas Underground tunnels. With this placement, the tunnel construction is thematically tied to the rest of the museum in a much better way than previously. The tunnels have been cleaned and fixed up. The frayed and broken sections of the rope bridges have been replaced with all new rope. I was disappointed to see that the skeleton of the miner has been removed, but the many appreciative comments from the kids indicates this was a good change. Apparently many kids found it frightening and disliked it. I am still not convinced the stated purpose of this exhibit to allow kids to explore and learn about life underground and what lies beneath our feet is at all effective. I enjoyed a small display of fossils embedded in the wall at one spot, but other than that, there is nothing educational inside and I seriously doubt many of the kids see it because it is situated in a spot that does not lend itself to stopping and looking. Nevertheless, kids really enjoy it and it brings people into the museum where they see other things that are truly educational, and it provides parents a bit of a respite as the kids zoom through it again and again, so it succeeds on that front. I do wish there was a bit more within it that might serve an educational purpose, particularly for the space it takes. I don’t advocate its removal, quite the opposite in fact. It should be added to in ways that enhance its educational value.
The mastodon and sauropod track are here, with the mastodon freshly painted to look more like the real bones from which the casts were made. It looks good and has more of a context with all the other exhibits nearby. The sauropod track has a new sign, which is a vast improvement over the old one. The swamp-dwelling sauropods are gone, replaced by a discussion of the Arkansas dinosaur trackways, including pictures. The trackways really are impressive, much more than they show here (in all fairness, to truly appreciate them would take an exhibit all its own, so what they accomplished here is perfectly reasonable given space constraints and exhibit balance considerations, it is quite sufficient for the intended audience without going overboard), but at least now visitors get a feel for the trackways as being more than an isolated footprint and the incorrect information from the old sign has been replaced with good information. The footprint now has that all important context. Outside still has the dinosaur dig that is popular with the kids, along with the adjacent track site, making a nice continuation of the interior exhibits.
There are several new exhibits to see which are well worth spending time to see. The exhibit that draws the most attention is an interactive 3D topographic map. Using a projector and an Xbox Kinect, they turn a simple sandbox into an endlessly changing map. As people move the sand around, they can see the colors change to match the topography, with snow-capped hills and rivers and lakes that respond to the changes in the landscape. Its draw and fascination is evident by the length of time people spend there manipulating the topography. It is a wonderful interactive display, but there are a couple of ways it could be improved. The actual topographic lines are very dim and go unnoticed by almost everyone, decreasing that educational aspect of the display. Despite a number of maps on display in the exhibit, there are no topographic maps for comparison other than the large map behind the mastodon. I discount that one because it is displayed as monotone wall art without reference to it being topographic in nature, so it runs under the radar for visitors. There is an empty wall right next to the sandbox. I think the exhibit could be improved by putting up a topographic map on that wall, along with a description of how to read it, using text that relates it back to the sandbox, thereby tying it all together.
Speaking of maps, there are several on display. A large geologic map of Arkansas adorns one wall, with explanations of how to read it, much like I suggested above for the topographic map. On the map are listed several places where mineralogical resources have been found and mined. Next to the map is a display showing some of the rocks and minerals that have been mined in the state that are shown on the map, as well as a display showing the major types of rock in the state. In addition, there is a table with several maps of various kinds. My favorite is the color map of the Mississippi river showing how it has meandered all over the area.
On the adjoining wall to the one displaying the geologic map is a series of display cases embedded into the wall showing different soil types, showing how soil changes with depth and region. One is called a Stuttgart soil, which is listed as the state soil of Arkansas. Who knew we even had an official state soil?
At the fossil station, you can look at real microfossils. There is a microscope which lets you see a variety of identified fossils such as shell fragments and echinoderm spines. The signs are good, informative without overloading visitors. The exhibit lets people see fossils that you don’t normally see in a museum and get a feel for the work involved. While I was there, several people examined the fossils and tried their hand at identifying them.
Next to the fossil station is a slice of soil that looks something like a giant ant colony display. Instead of ants and there tunnels, there is bacteria which turn the soil different colors depending on the type of bacteria and their type of metabolism. The signage is great and very informative. I have not seen a display like this before and thought it a great addition. The only criticism I would make is that the lighting is not the best. The lights shine up from the base of the display, so the lights are too bright to get a good look at the lower portion of the soil. You wind up trying to look almost directly at the bulbs between you and the bottom of the display.
Continuing on, there is a rock smasher, where people can drop a heavy weight onto rocks to see pieces break off and fall into a short series of grates separating the pieces into different sizes. I am not sure people were getting the point of the exhibit, which was explained on the adjacent sign, which talked rocks breaking up to form sand, clay, and soil. People seemed to like trying to smash the rocks, though, so hopefully some people looked over at the sign while they were doing so or waiting their turn. Curiously, the sign never actually mentions the word “erosion”, which is what the exhibit is all about.
Between the rock smasher and the dinosaur footprint is a large display of Arkansas quartz. Arkansas is famous throughout the world for its quartz, so it is fitting to see it on display here.
If I were to pick the one display that most surprised me, I would probably choose the taphonomy display. As someone professionally interested in how things decay and form fossils, I particularly loved this display. It is not something you see in museums very often. Taphonomy is the study of everything that happens to an organism between the time it dies and the time it is collected and studied. This display of course, only covers the first part of the process, showing five weeks of the decay of a freshly dead rat. I should warn people that it might be disturbing for some viewers. It is understandable they only go this far in the process, as it is the easiest to show and most relevant to active, biological processes that affect us. The touch panel next to the display allows people to go further into how the decay process fits into the function of a healthy ecosystem. Definitely worth a look. If maggots bother you, you can still learn a lot from the touch screen.
The final piece of the exhibit is a touch screen which allows you to take a virtual field trip through eight different areas of Arkansas, learning about the geology making each area unique and how the underlying rocks affect the landscape. It is well done and you can spend a lot of time going through the different trips. I didn’t have time to go through all of them, but I will definitely be spending more time at this panel the next time I go.
In conclusion, I think they did a great job on the renovation, filling in part of a huge, gaping hole in Arkansas museum coverage. There are still a few places that can be improved, like any exhibit, but what they have done is worlds better than before, providing exhibits you won’t find elsewhere in the state. Take a day out of your weekend and go see for yourself. It really is a new museum, carrying over the best of what was there before and adding in much that will fill your day.
Mastodon bones have been found throughout Arkansas, although almost all have been found either in northeast Arkansas between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River or along the Red River in Southwest Arkansas. According to the Arkansas State University Museum in Jonesboro, Arkansas has more mastodon finds than any other state in the mid-south region, with at least 20 different skeletons. Most of the work on them has been done by Dr. Frank Schambach and others of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, headquartered at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, along with members of the Arkansas State University Museum. This particular mastodon was excavated by Dr. Schambach with the help of the Arkansas Archaeological Society along the Red River in Southwest Arkansas, I think in 1987, although I am not sure of the date yet.
Mastodons were related to elephants, although not as closely related to modern elephants as mammoths. Mammoths have also been found in Arkansas, most notably the Hazen mammoth, found in 1965. That specimen was a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), a less hairy version of the wooly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). They lived across much of North and Central America during the Miocene and Pliocene, although they are known mostly from the Pleistocene in Arkansas, the heyday of the Ice Age, which is when people traditionally think of them living. They were similar in size to modern elephants.
The teeth of mastodons, mammoths and modern elephants tell an interesting story. Modern elephants have a wide diet of vegetation from grass to fruit and tree limbs. The Asian elephant has teeth that are more plate-like in form, making a series of ridges that create an excellent grinding surface. African elephants spend more time in forests and bush lands, with a corresponding higher amount of bushy vegetation in their diet. Their teeth are large, multi-rooted teeth with a series of ridge-like cusps. Mammoths take the plate-like grinding surface to an extreme as an adaptation to the grasslands they frequented. Mastodons, on the other hand, specialized in the opposite direction, with large, prominent cusps suited to a more forested environment and diet. Thus, mastodons and mammoths formed a bracket surrounding elephant ecology.
Work that has recently come out has shed new light on why they went extinct. People have long argued over whether climate change or humans wiped out the megaherbivores at the end of the last ice age. The Overkill hypothesis postulated that early humans hunted them to extinction. There is also the alternative that other actions by early humans contributed to their extinction. However, while there has been plenty of evidence indicating humans did hunt mammoths (e.g. the Clovis people at the Dent site in Colorado), the hypothesis has come under fire for the lack of widespread hunting evidence and timing issues, with research indicating the megaherbivores were already going extinct before humans appeared on the scene. The other hypothesis, climate change, has gotten more support from a study of plant fossils. According to the new data, the early tundra environments were dominated, not by grass, but by forbs, weedy herbaceous plants with more nutrients than grasses. An earlier glaciation 20-25,000 years ago dramatically reduced the abundance of these plants. When the weather warmed up, the forbs increased again, but never approached their previous levels. When the next glaciation hit, the forbs mostly died out, allowing the less nutritious grasses to take over, which greatly reduced the amount of herbivores the land could support. Of course, this does not mean that humans had nothing to do with the extinctions, but it does mean they were likely not the primary cause, more likely simply throwing the last spear into the coffin of the great herbivores.
That’s it for this week. Check back Monday for a new mystery fossil. Have a good weekend.