by Chris Clemens
Did you know that the most complete skeleton of a mastodon ever found in the world is available to see right in Ithaca?
Did you know that the only evidence of dinosaurs in New York State is a few footprints discovered in Nyack?
How about the fact that, just because there is no evidence of dinosaurs having been here, doesn’t mean that they weren’t here? It might mean that those famous glaciers we are so familiar with may have erased the evidence researchers wish existed.
Well, maybe you already knew all that, but I just learned it all during a recent visit to Tompkins County, in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region.
You’re probably already familiar with the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca but know it by a different name. The research institute is the founding organization and watchdog of the unique collections within the Museum of the Earth. I’ve passed the museum on Trumansburg Road countless times over the years, but it wasn’t until recently that I decided to finally stop in and explore.
The PRI was first founded in the early 1930’s by Gilbert Dennison Harris, a Professor of Geology at nearby Cornell University. Harris had amassed a collection of fossils and Earth Science-related collectibles that he didn’t quite trust the university to protect long term. With the foresight to create an organization dedicated to the utmost standard of protecting and preserving the collection, he founded the PRI to ensure future generations would always have access to the past. While Harris and his team were excited to form an independent society dedicated to their research, the move wasn’t popular with Cornell. It’s only recently that the two institutions have set aside the fossilized estrangement and begun to partner again.
The founding and current Directors are each highly recognized in their fields. The Director who later took over for Harris was the first woman in history to be awarded the Paleontological Society Medal–the highest national honor available in her field. Katherine Palmer, like Harris and many others involved, weren’t just hobbyists who found fossils to be neat, they remain some of the brightest minds in the field of earth science research. In fact, their peer-reviewed journal today is the oldest of its kind in the Americas!
I know some of you aren’t particularly enthralled by the history of an institution, but stick with me here. What the PRI has done is create a museum exhibiting some of the most unique fossils in the world. Their goal of education and research is cool, but the way they’ve made it available to the public is even cooler.
Visitors are greeted by the 44-foot skeleton of a Right Whale. The massive skeleton hovers above one of the exhibit spaces and is a proper indication that what you’re about to experience is both massive and wildly fascinating. Before descending to the main exhibit space, a hand-painted mural featuring the artwork of Barbara Page follows 544 million years of how life on Earth has changed. You can see both of these just from the lobby!
On the bottom floor of the museum, individual spaces are dedicated to periods of time like the Cambrian Period and the Devonian Period, each with rare examples of fossils and displays. Though many of the specimens stand on their own, the signage and educational panels that accompany them do a really great job of educating. In my experience, there was just enough factual data to wow me and help me learn, but stopped short of overwhelming me with information that would’ve been over my head.
If you’re concerned that just simply walking through exhibits won’t be enough to hold your attention, there is a “Prep Lab” where visitors can watch researchers conduct actual work, a spot where you can bring your own fossils to have them identified on Fossil ID Days, and even a spot to play in the dirt and possibly a find a fossil of your own. And, certain times of the week, they offer a guided tour with a docent who can help point out things you might normally not catch, or explain things a bit further. During my visit, I had the opportunity to receive a tour by Dr. Don Wilson, who did an outstanding job of putting the complex topic of how the globe has evolved into layman’s terms that I was not only able to grasp, but also inspired me to engage more deeply.
If you or your family is seeking a new adventure that is both educational and a lot of fun, I strongly recommend checking out the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca. Right now, there is a temporary shark exhibit on display through September 4, 2017. If you get there in time to see it, you’ll be introduced to the Buzz Saw Shark, aptly named for its 360-degree ring of death-inducing teeth! After your visit, if you’d like to explore a little outdoors, the PRI now also owns the Cayuga Nature Center just a few miles away. I’ll feature that spot in depth on a separate blog post. Enjoy your visit!
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens