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A Sneak Peek Inside U Of M's New Museum Of Natural History Before It Opens To The Public

Jan 22, 2019

University of Michigan Museum of Natural History
Credit University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

"Old friends in a new home" is the way University of Michigan Museum of Natural History officials like to describe the new facility opening to the public this spring.  89.1 WEMU's Lisa Barry got a chance to tour the new Natural History Museum scheduled to open on the University of Michigan campus in April.

Walking in to the main entrance of the museum inside the brand new Biological Sciences building on the University of Michigan campus, visitors are met by the museum’s iconic mastodon couple.

U of M Natural History Museum Director Amy Harris
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

Museum director Amy Harris says many of the favorite exhibits from the old Natural History Museum will join a number of new exhibits, with a 50-50 split of new exhibits and old favorites.

View of the museum entrance.
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

When it was announced they were moving the U of M Museum of Natural History after over 60 years to a new location, museum director Amy Harris says a lot of people were not happy because of the memories they experienced in the old facility.  But she says they put together a “museum memories” collection to try and help.

Museum Atrium
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

The new Natural History museum is just part of what’s inside the newly-constructed Biological Sciences building, which the museum will share with the two biology departments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, along with Biological Station and the Museum of Paleontology.

Museum research in lab visible to the public with Bill Sanders
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

The new museum will have an interactive area where visitors can look through big windows in the “Fossil Prep Lab," a professional research lab where scientists working on historic specimens will wear headsets and talk to visitors as time allows.

Lab Specimen
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Bill Sanders leads the lab using a variety of manual and mechanical tools to look at life in the past and learn how the animals engaged with the environment.  One of the tools he uses is a microsand blaster…like a miniature jackhammer to take the rock off of a specimen.

There will be old favorites combined with new features in the Museum of Natural History and some new and improved favorites, including the museum's planetarium.  Mathew Limke has worked at the museum planetarium for 29 years and says he is looking forward to working in the brand new digital dome theatre.

He says, in addition to traditional sky shows, they can adapt what is shown in the planetarium to include other types of educational programs using “full dome content” as a teaching tool, including programs about coral reefs.  On the outside of the new museum,  you’ll notice a large, golden dome visible from Washtenaw Avenue, which actually is covering the new Planetarium & Dome Theater.

Among the new exhibits when the natural history museum opens will be their first new dinosaur on display in some 20 years--as Harris puts it, "a new dinosaur for a new museum."  Hanging from the ceiling in the  five-story west atrium is another new museum addition--a giant Quetzalcoatlus.  Harris says it’s based on a fossil found in Texas and lived about 67 million years ago. 

The hand painted mural by Tree Town Murals of Ann Arbor in lower level community room of the museum.
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

Art is a part of the new Natural History Museum.  A specially unique commissioned mural painted by an artist in Italy featuring animals swarming to have their lunch was printed in Ann Arbor and hung as wallpaper in an area with a view of the museum’s new restaurant below, “Darwins.”   

The hand painted mural by Tree Town Murals of Ann Arbor in lower level community room of the museum.
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

And in the lower level of the new museum is a community room where the entire back wall is covered by a hand-painted mural by Tree Town Murals in Ann Arbor.  Lori Dick is the marketing and communications manager for the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.  She says there is always something new to see in the mural she describes as fabulous.  There will also be a new museum store opening in April made with ash wood to provide natural warmth in a building constructed with a lot of glass and steel.  

With several months until the new museum opens to the public, some of the exhibits are still in storage including a life-size Australopithecus sediba.  Museum collections manager Kelsey Wiggins uses a drill to open the crate where the scientifically accurate hyperrealistic model of a human ancestor complete with skin and hair is stored.  Wiggins says the sculptural reconstructed replica of an extinct human will be displayed right next to the skeleton she’s based on following a mini museum makeover.   

Over a million man hours went into construction of the Biological Sciences building where the Natural History Museum is located with a budget of more than $260 million.   Museum director Amy Harris says they had a lot of help from University faculty, staff, and museum supporters.

Museum marketing director Lori Dick stands in front of Puma sculpture brought over from the former museum space.
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

The grand opening for the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History is slated for April of 2019, with a secondary opening of about half the exhibits the following November.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu