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Back in the old days, before the idea of museums being educational centers became commonplace, most museums were more like some rich person’s trinkets collected during vacations packed into glass cases so people could see them. They rarely had signs telling people what anything was, nor was there oftentimes any attempt at organization. Because of the rather haphazard and all-encompassing nature of the displays, they got the name Cabinets of Curiosities.
As time went on, they became more thoughtful and organized, with more attention being spent on telling people what the objects were, teaching people about them, and properly preserving the objects for posterity.
The Old State House Museum in Little Rock honors that tradition with an exhibit called “Cabinets of Curiosities: Treasure of the University of Arkansas Museum Collection.” I am sad to say that the exhibit has been up since March 11 of 2017, but I have only recently learned about it and have gone to see it. Truth be told, the only reason I found out about it was because I went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to see the Hazen Mammoth fossils and found that the lower jaw of that mammoth was on display in Little Rock.
The reason I am sad to say this is because the exhibit is well worth your time to go see. If I had known about it earlier, I would definitely have discussed it here by now. I was told it will still be at the museum for another year, so you still have time. It is free, so go. Spend a Saturday downtown and explore the exhibit. Then go see what else is down there, which is plenty to keep you busy over the weekend.
What will you see when you are there? To begin with, you might want to ask directions from their helpful and friendly staff, because the exhibit is upstairs in a side gallery that you might miss if you didn’t know it was there.
The objects are from the University of Arkansas Museum at Fayetteville, which, sadly, closed its doors in 2003. As a result, if you want to see their collections, you have to make an appointment to see the warehoused collections. Or you can see a small part of them in this exhibit. The museum had collections from all over the world covering many subjects, which the exhibit honors by having selections of a wide range. It is like a mini-museum of anthropology and natural history.
I am a fossil guy, so I am going to focus on the fossils you can see. The fossils are mostly in the first two rooms that you enter in the exhibit. In the first room, under the horns of a large cervid (the family containing deer, elk, and moose), are two cabinets of invertebrate fossils and minerals. There are some nice fossils to see. You can see a crinoid with the calyx, or body, and pinnules, or “fronds”. These are much rarer than the pieces of stalks we normally find throughout the Ozarks. There is also a starfish, ammonoids, and nice plant fossils, among others.
To the right of this display is a cabinet containing the skulls of a musk ox and Smilodon (saber-toothed tiger), a couple of large, straight-shelled nautiloids, and one of the bones of Arkansaurus, which up until very recently, was the only known dinosaur found in Arkansas.
On the other side of the room, you can see the bones of an elephant leg and a cabinet full of geology specimens, including one enormous quartz crystal that would not be allowed as a carry-on for some planes because it is too big to fit.
The next room contains case with the leg bones of a camel, lion, dog, and cat. It also contains the pieces of mammoth that I came to see. But before you get to that case, you have to pass a giant clam that could fit a child, or even a small adult if they curled up.
The other side of the room contains the skulls of a bison and rhino, a whale rib, and an entire icthyosaur from Germany. The end of the room has the skulls of a bear and walrus, complete with tusks, and the skeletons of a bat and snake.
The final part of the fossil and biology section that I was most interested in was an old display of horse evolution. If made today, it would probably look substantially different because of all the new data we have gotten since that display was made; but except for a few very minor details, the essential facts would be the same.
Of course, there is much more to the exhibit than what I have presented here, such as this cool whalebone armor and cavalry sword, so spend some time checking out the rest of the exhibit and the museum.
There is one thing that the exhibit could have capitalized on, but didn’t (mainly because they didn’t know about it, but also because they were trying to stay with the whole cabinets of curiosity motif), was that many of the fossils and biology specimens have fossil counterparts that have been found in Arkansas. For instance, we have fossil Smilodons, musk oxen, whales, several mastodons, giant deer and giant snakes, and much more.
So here is my question to you. How many people would pay for a special tour of the exhibit that discussed all the cool Arkansas fossils that matched up with the ones on display here. How much would you pay? $10/person? More? Less?