Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Indiana State Museum

Image: wikipedia- by Nick81aku
If you were to visit Indianapolis with fossils on your mind, you’d likely find yourself at the Children’s Museum (and I will get to that in another post); but there is another museum in the city that you should not miss.

Though the Indiana State Museum does not get the press of its (not so local) neighbour, it should…or maybe I should say it will as some of its paleo displays are currently undergoing an upgrade and when completed will be amazing. Though these displays are still months from competition, I was lucky enough to get an early bird look, but more about this later.

The collection itself dates back to the American Civil War, and for a short time it was housed in the state capital, before growing and changing locations a number of times until it found a home in its new, state of the art building in 2002.
The building itself is in the White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis, and is located near the Indianapolis Zoo, White River Gardens and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
I had been in contact with the museum before I arrived and showed up and met the newly appointed Director of Communication, Hannah Keifer. She had a surprise for us, our own chaperon for the paleo side of the museum, the curator of palaeontology Ronald L. Richards, who was a total delight and a gentleman.
Our first stop was visiting the under construction displays of the Ice Age and Prehistoric Native America, and though there is still a few months of work to be done, the exhibition is already looking great and will be a real highlight of any visit.
Though no dinosaurs have been found in the state, there is a wealth of Ice Age animals, especially mastodons. This gallery will be fantastic and many of the specimens are already in place. It is like an Ice Age Greatest Hits with giant bison, smilodon, Short Face Bears, peccaries, rhinos, giant sloths and of course a number of locally found mastodons.
The star of the museum will be Fred the Mastodon, and how do I know Fred the Mastodon will be the star you ask? Because good ol’ Fred has his own twitter account (@FredIndiana).
 The specimen went through a very unusual (but clever) way of fundraising the new renovations by selling off Fred’s bones. People could purchase (sponsor) a bone from $20, or the skull for $20,000, and the money raised went to building the display.Much like Sue the T.rex, Fred’s organically wrought iron frame has been intricately designed, so I am looking forward to seeing images when the mastodon is finally put back together.

Ron showed us Fred, who partly was under wraps (literally) and partly dissembled on tables all about the room, and he pointed out some pathologies on the side of the skull. I also noted that, unlike almost all dinosaur skeletons you see mounted, between the vertebra of Fred were large disks of cartilage, meaning once rebuilt it will be one of the most life-like mounts you will see.Rarely do you get the opportunity to get this close to such a specimen….so I took it.

One of the completed displays we got a peek at was a life-size mammoth that had fallen into a frozen pond and is struggling to escape. Apparently, this was a necessary rebuild of an older display as the original version made the mammoth look like it was sitting in a jacuzzi, and was a source of great mirth with visitors.
The mural behind is first class, and hidden throughout the wild-scape are a number of other critters that the eagle-eyed amongst you may spot.The museum will also display the Hebior Mammoth, a rarity as this specimen was unearthed with clear signs of being butchered by Paleo-Indians. I assume this is a cast as I am pretty sure the original is at the Milwaukee Public Museum – which I will cover in a later article…
…and the hits kept coming. Ron showed us through another section of the display and revealed a new cave system that has been built for visitors to walk through.
The quality of this display is extraordinarily high, and so exact that the builders actually took molds of the original cave, so the build is an exact replica. The fossils that the crew from the museum had found while working this geological formation are to be placed in the exact location where they were unearthed - and most of these were already there for you to peer at through fissures in the rock.Ron recounted he had worked these caves with a good friend who had died, so he was taking real pride and joy building these displays as close to the original location as he could. This effort shines through and is important for another reason. Sadly, part of the cave is gone now as it sits under one of the states highways, yet here, in the Indiana State Museum, it’s been recreated for all too see.
Leaving these caves, you enter a tunnel running through a glacier, representing the Ice that once stood over the state, and standing about this are the creatures they have evidence that once lived there, such as musk ox, and its accurate down the plants.As I mentioned, though there have never been any dinosaurs found in the state, Indiana has a rich fossil history, and the next section Ron led us to was the Palaeozoic.   
Soaring above and surrounding the display of crinoids, corals, amphibian trackways, ferns and Lepidodendron trunks are columns and walls cut from the very rocks that make up the region, creating one of the more interesting geological displays I have seen.

As this museum has several floors, it is possible to get above this display and look down on how stones like these were mined and moved, and its this sort of clever use of space that I really enjoy. Why use a exhibition for one educational purpose when it can represent a number of ideas and facts.
Swimming above your head as you walk between these geological columns are some of the life-size monsters that once populated Indiana’s ancient seas. A clawed Eurypterids is diving, while behind an enormous nautoloid, maybe 10ft long, is jetting around the corner into the display. As you come around one corner is the largest predator of the Devonian seas, Dunkleosteus, built into one of the more ingenious displays I have seen in any museum. The metal structure that holds the considerable skull in place has been bent and forged into the body of the placoderm, giving an effective idea of the animal’s size and body shape when alive.

With the museum mostly covered, Ron still had something special for us. On the top floor is a long corridor that leads from the museum to the office and storage area of the collection. Here our ‘guide’ showed us some of the specimens being stored until they can go into the new displays, as well as the work areas for processing new specimens.
The Museum runs its own digs and spends time sorting through the fossil material and dirt brought back from various locations throughout the state. This includes the art work that has been produced for the exhibit, including some wonderful pieces from famous paleo artists such as Karen Carr.
Checking up on Karen’s website, it notes that the “Indiana Teleoceras mural gave Karen two new opportunities: First, she was able to visit the actual site depicted in the mural. When researching dinosaurs, almost nothing of the original environment remains other than as strata; the depression that created this small pond was still visible when Karen visited. Karen has since worked on several projects allowing her to see and explore the environments she depicts.”

Room after room we got to see some spectacular specimens, some for display, others that have been taken out and stored for future use.  

Amongst one of the largest stuffed bird collections I have ever seen, the museum stores the various mammoth and mastodon remains collected over the years. 

This includes one of the most handsome skulls I have seen anywhere. The colour is spectacular, and what I took to be possible marks from where plant roots had grown through the dirt and covered the fossil Ron suggested were more likely the stains from different minerals that filtered through the earth.
One of my favourite specimens here (that I believe will be heading back out soon) is a complete Dire Wolf skeleton. What’s unusual about this specimen is that at some point the rear left leg had been dislocated, and the wear on the hip bone shows it was an old injury, meaning the predator must have been in pain for some time before its death.

The museum also has a large archaeological collection, and amongst the small, hand crafted clay figurines lay some remarkable fossil bear teeth that had been modified by paleo-indians that Ron proudly showed off - and rightly so as they are stunning.
We thanked Ron for being so generous with his time, and I ducked away to check out the rest of the museum. There is a second geology/earth/universe display (Birth of the Earth), containing ancient specimens such as tiger iron from Western Australia and a 3D global screen of the Moon.
Next was a recently renovated and opened display about the states modern wildlife. These were exceptionally well crafted, and I was surprised to see that among all this, there was a single animatronic (or perhaps some sort of solar powered display) of a small butterfly that flapped its wings as it sat high on a fallen tree. A nice little feature that most would likely miss unless you were looking hard.
 Coming from a small museum, where we constantly struggle for space, one thing that really struck me was the size of this museum and the luxury they have for displays. This is not a crowded museum, instead you get to walk around from gallery to gallery, floor to floor – often with sky bridges connecting one area to another - and it gives a real sense you were exploring the location.

In these you will find exhibits about the nation’s 19th state, local industries, politics and heritage; local artists and what it means to be a Hoosier, if I Hooiser you may be. There is also an IMAX cinema attached to the building and, at the time, a crazy little exhibit on Star Wars masks that had been modified by artists.
 I liked the museum a lot, and will hopefully get back there when the new display is finished, and I can see the final product.

The Indiana State Museum is located at 650 W. Washington Street in Indianapolis. Exhibition gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The first Tuesday of each month (Community Tuesdays) admission is half price. Auxiliary aids and services are available with advance notice. For more information, call the museum at 317.232.1637.


It has underground parking, which it shares with other nearby institutions. This means you can walk straight into the museum and duck rain or chilly days.