SAN BERNARDINO: Hall of Paleontology shows signs of life

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Signs of life are emanating from the San Bernardino County Museum's new Hall of Paleontology. The state-of-the-art building has sat empty since its completion nearly two years ago, awaiting the necessary funding to install its exhibits.
That day has come, filling the hall with mountains of Styrofoam rocks, faux vegetation and replicated fossils. The artifacts are part and parcel of a display titled "Life to Death to Discovery," which will be the hall's signature and largest exhibit.

"We are recreating the environment of the Pleistocene, which ran from some 2.6 million years to about 10 and one-half thousand years ago," said Kathleen Springer, senior curator of geology at the museum. "This is the very near past for us and it informs the future in terms of climate change and animal responses to those changes."

Springer's excitement is palpable as she describes the exhibits being installed in the hall, which she and the other museum curators helped to create and develop over the past six years along with Richard Valencia of Platypus Designs in Pasadena.

"Life to Death to Discovery" will follow the life cycle of two mastodons, a mother and baby, as they live, die and become fossils that are discovered and studied by modern geologists and paleontologists. "We want to show science as a process, to answer the questions of how you know the age of bones, how animals died and how they got to be fossils," Springer said.

Installing the new exhibit this month are a crew from General Graphics Exhibits in San Francisco. The fabrication company is active in the museum field, said Museum Director Robert McKernan. "In fact, they have just returned from installation work at the Smithsonian in Washington," he said.

Exhibit manager Jon Altemus described the three-week installation project as one of the largest his crew has done. Synthetic rock is created in the company's shop and fashioned into boulders and other large formations. A stream of running water will course through one such rock formation at the museum. Faux fossils are embedded in the rocks, dotted with simulated pine trees, manzanita and grasses. These plants existed at lower elevations in the Pleistocene era than they do now because of climate change, Springer said. "It was a lot more temperate here, with more water, at that time."

The pair of mastodons, star players in the exhibit, are being created by a museum artist in Canada. Their 12-foot-high bodies are due to arrive at the museum in January, when they will take their place at the head of the exhibit. Their lives will be short, however, as the script calls for dire wolves to prey upon them, reducing them to bones.

"Not everyone gets to be a fossil, however," Springer said. "How do you get to be one? Our exhibit will show you," she said, pointing to the future water feature and its adjacent sedimentary rock deposits. Dioramas, text and graphic panels and interactive displays will present information and challenges to museum goers.

A simulated research lab room will offer visitors a chance to play at being research associates and decide how to deal with newly discovered fossils. "We have never seen an exhibit like this anywhere else," Springer said. "You can experience firsthand what paleontologists do."

In addition to the fossil exhibit, three other displays are being installed in the three-story hall. These include one on plate tectonics, another about regional minerals and a third titled "The Earth's Test Kitchen." The Hall of Paleontology will eventually house some two dozen exhibits, McKernan said.

Monies to install the first four exhibits came from grants awarded by the California Cultural Heritage Endowment and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and the museum association had already appropriated and raised monies for construction of the hall, completed in April, 2009, McKernan said.

A preview opening for the exhibit hall is planned for spring, 2011, according to McKernan. "We would like members of the public to experience the first exhibits and get a taste of what is coming," he said.

"Our collections reflect our area and our overarching idea is to interpret our own back yard," Springer said.

The museum's area sits on the San Andreas fault line, the juncture of the two largest tectonic plates on Earth, dictating so much of the area's history and future. "Geology exists here big-time!" Springer said.

The museum's new exhibits intend to show the public just how and why.

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