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Fossil site’s museum marks fifth anniversary

Rex Barber • Sep 5, 2012 at 10:36 PM

Around 250,000 visits have been recorded at the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitors Center at the Gray Fossil Site since it opened five years ago.

Blaine Schubert, director of the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology at ETSU and faculty member in the department of geosciences, said the museum and site are treasures in an academic sense but also for the region because they bring in people from all around the world to learn about this unique aspect of Appalachia.

First discovered in 2000 by a crew cutting a road near Tenn. Highway 75, the 4.5-million- to 7-million-year-old site soon came under the purview of ETSU. Paleontologists were hired to excavate at the site and soon many species were found, including elephant, alligator, saber-toothed cat, short-faced bear, ground sloth, rhino, camel, the most complete specimen of a red panda in the world and also the world’s largest collection of fossil tapirs.

In a few years plans were made to erect a visitors center near the site and $8 million was set aside by Tennessee for that project. The museum opened Aug. 31, 2007.

The fossils are all stored at the museum, and visitors can watch as volunteers and paleontologists not only dig up fossils but also prepare them in the lab, which is also at the museum. Some of the fossils are on display.

The museum has a 3,000-square-foot temporary exhibit hall. The first exhibit displayed there was “A T-Rex named Sue.” This exhibit really kicked off the museum and since that time many other temporary exhibits have come to the museum.

Recently, a major annex was added to the museum. This 7,000-square-foot facility has a cafe, indoor and outdoor classrooms and a picnic area.

After the retirement of museum director Jeanne Zavada earlier this year, Schubert became director of both the site and museum.

“And one of the things that really happened this year that hadn’t been established before is the museum and the fossil site are both part of the Center of Excellence in Paleontology now,” Schubert said. “And what that really allows us to do that’s different is combine together the research component and the education component under one unit, so I think we become a much better educational unit for the community.”

School groups continue to visit the site and museum. A summer camp held each year at the museum is a popular way to teach about natural history and science, Schubert said.

Schubert would like to see yearly attendance at the museum around 70,000 and is working to achieve that number. Currently around 40,000 visits are recorded each year.

One way to ensure increasing visits is by offering traveling exhibits that appeal to a broad range of age groups, Schubert said.

An exhibit called Hatching The Past coming up this month is an example of this, Schubert said. This exhibit teaches visitors about dinosaur reproduction and what can be learned about that through the fossil record. The information contained in this exhibit is broad and should appeal to many different people, he said.

A monthly lecture series at the museum has been really popular with both students and the general public, Schubert said. There has already been a lecture on fossil crocodiles and fossil fish. There is one coming up on Tuesday about South American mammals and how they have changed over time.

“But this monthly lecture series has been really popular pulling people in,” Schubert said. “We had standing room only last time.”

But there is more for people to do than attend lectures.

“We’ve had a lot of volunteer influx, people helping us work in the lab and in the field but there are a lot more opportunities to help us with education and outreach and that’s definitely a growing area,” Schubert said.

Schubert said the museum contributes greatly to the understanding of science and exposure to that field.

“And as we move forward I see our museum becoming a major area for science education in this region,” he said.

The ETSU and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum is open from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily and is located 1.8 miles off Interstate 26’s Gray Exit 13. All-Access Passes to the museum are $7 for children (5-12), $9 for seniors (65 and older), and $10 for adults. For information, call toll-free 1-866-202-6223 or visit www.etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum.

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